Op-Ed: GOP Should Recast Its Message On Inequality

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Read Matthew Continetti's Weekly Standard op-ed, "About Inequality."

Occupy Wall Street and reports on the nation's growing income gap have helped rally the political left, argues Matthew Continetti of The Weekly Standard. It is not the government's responsibility to redress wealth disparities, he says, and the GOP must do a better job of communicating that message.

BRIAN NAYLOR, HOST:

After being forced to evacuate Zuccotti Park early this morning, Occupy Wall Street protesters promised to continue a movement that has spread nationally, in some cases globally. The movement created a focal point for fears about the country's growing income gap. And President Obama and other politicians have picked up on the theme in recent weeks, as many in the middle class continue to face long-term unemployment and stagnant incomes. In a recent op-ed in The Weekly Standard, Matt Continetti argues that the issue of inequality has shifted the political ground to the left.

Republicans, he says, were largely caught off guard by the populist surge and have been too quick to dismiss the left's arguments about income inequality. And we would like to hear some - from some Republicans. What would your – or should your party do on the income of - on the issue, that is, of income inequality? 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org, and you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Matt Continetti is the opinion editor for The Weekly Standard. His op-ed "About Inequality" was published in this week's issue, and he joins us here in Studio 3A. Welcome back to the show.

MATT CONTINETTI: Thanks for having me.

NAYLOR: Matt, you argue that the right has not responded coherently to the arguments on inequality. What's at stake here? Is this issue going to hurt Republicans going into the 2012 elections?

CONTINETTI: Well, according to the polls, it has every possibility to hurt the Republicans. When you ask about the fate of the Bush tax rates, say, the public is behind efforts to repeal them, and they side with President Obama on that. So it's certainly an issue that galvanizes media opinion, and I think as a function of that could galvanize public opinion as well.

NAYLOR: A recent poll by The Wall Street Journal found three quarters of Americans agree with an argument that the power of banks and large corporations should be reduced. Is this a view that tends to benefit the left?

CONTINETTI: Right. Well, I think I would distinguish between the findings in that poll and then the overall debate about income inequality, because I think inequality that the people are worried about in that poll is political inequality, the inequality of the banks to shape public policy, for example. And there, I think, there is some room for everyone on whatever side of the spectrum to agree about restraining the political equality, or rather enforcing political equality among the various interests.

NAYLOR: That's sort of what the Occupy Wall Street movement seems to be about...

CONTINETTI: Well, there's many - there's a variety of things the Occupy Wall Street movement seems to be about. And I'm been following it pretty intensely. There are things that the liberals want the Occupy Wall Street movement to be about, and that is primarily the issue of income inequality. But I think if you talk to the occupiers and if you read their theorists, the people that write the books that inspire the people to occupy Wall Street or McPherson Square here in Washington, D.C., they have other concerns.

And they're much more against everything - against the structure of government in this country, against globalization, against war. It's not just the issue of income inequality for them.

NAYLOR: But on the issue of income inequality, how do you think that conservatives should recapture this argument?

CONTINETTI: Sure. Well, my problem with a lot of the conservative response so far at these debates is that on the one hand there are those who deny the fact of income inequality by citing social science research. But to deny the fact of it is not to deny that it's a problem. It's just to dispute whether the problem exists. And then on the other hand, you have some conservatives who want to kind of outdo the left or say, well, you're right, income inequality is a problem, but here are the response is that we should have as conservatives.

But, of course, if those responses don't work, then you open a space for the left to do their responses. And so in my piece that you cited, I argue that maybe conservatives should return to an earlier understanding of what equality was, and that was the understanding of the founders. There's been a lot of interest in the Founding Fathers over the last few years that we see in the Tea Party movement, for example. And the founders never thought about equality of income as the concern of government. They thought the concern of government ought to be the equal protection of rights, including those rights that lead to inequality of income - the right of property, for example. And I think that's a much firmer ground for the right to make a stand on and to say - what the right is supporting is a vision of government that the founders supported in the Declaration, in the Constitution, but that so few people - on both left and right, actually - pay any attention to.

NAYLOR: Is there - so in inequality of property, you mean not just real property, but material property?

MATTHEW CONTINETTI: Right. For the - right. The phrase from Locke that Jefferson appropriated for the Declaration was life, liberty and property. He changed that to happiness. But that meant that, you know, we have certain rights, and the exercise of those rights in our differing abilities is going to lead to different accumulations of property. And so they wanted to protect the rights, not equalize the property.

NAYLOR: Let's take a call. You can join in the conversation and give us a call here at TALK OF THE NATION. And Ed is on the line with us now from Denver. Ed, welcome to the program.

ED: Thank you.

NAYLOR: What can we do for you today? What are your thoughts about income inequality?

ED: Well, I basically kind of parallel with what was just said. I think the role of government is less to make the accumulation of property equal, and more to make the accumulation, the opportunity equal. And what I've seen happen in my lifetime is that the access to quality, primary education and higher education has become more and more difficult for anybody that's not in the upper-class. And I think that's what should be focused on, is making sure the opportunity is equal from birth.

NAYLOR: And do you think that your party - the Republican Party - needs to do something about this? Or what should they do?

ED: Well, I think they need to admit that it's a problem. I think that's the biggest thing. If they - if we really believe in what we say, that you pull yourself up by your own bootstraps, if you really believe in that, then that means that there shouldn't be a big difference in opportunity between a rich son and a poor son.

NAYLOR: All right. Ed, thanks very much. Matt, do you agree with that? Does the Republican Party - does the government not do enough to encourage education equality?

CONTINETTI: Right. Well, I would agree that there are problems with our education system, and certainly the Founders, especially Jefferson, believed that education was going to be crucial to the fate of the democratic republic that they were creating. And we see today that there are plenty of problems with our educational system. Both left and right agree. But then it gets into this case of, well, what are the problems, and what are the solutions? That's a conversation that I think the Founding Fathers would want to have, and it's a conversation to be conducted on the level of reason and, you know, what are the appropriate powers of government, and such. So I agree with the caller. I think he makes some interesting points.

NAYLOR: The Republicans who have been campaigning for president have talked a lot about the economy, a lot about the jobless rate, but not so much about the issue of income inequality. Should they be?

CONTINETTI: Well, I think so, because I think once you grasp equality from the point of view that I'm talking about right now and that I've - and that I'm writing about in the Weekly Standard, it becomes, actually, a pretty powerful issue for conservatives, or for whoever wants to get it, because, obviously, the Founders of this country were very intelligent men and farseeing. And they had a vision of equal rights of all, and that the role of government was to protect the equal rights of all, and specifically those rights that we have as - by nature of being human, such as the right to life and the right to conscience and stuff and such, the things we read about in the Bill of Rights. This is the template, I think, for an agenda that actually could sway a lot of people in the middle.

NAYLOR: Frank joins us on the line from Hollywood, Florida. Frank, your thoughts about income inequality and the conservative movement.

FRANK: First of all, an excellent topic. I appreciate it. I am a fiscal conservative. I've been one since 1986, the first time I ever voted. And then I'd like to mention that the inequality - the discussion's all great, but for instance, I'm unemployed right now. I've just retired from the military, and I'm looking for a job, and it's very difficult. We can have all these conversations about how the liberals think and how the conservatives think. But at the end of the day, if I don't have a job, I don't really care what these two - the two parties think. I really don't care how they're campaigning. They've - they don't provide the means for myself and others - because a lot of us out there, both conservative and liberal - who simply do not have employment.

NAYLOR: Thanks very much, Frank. And, Matt, that's an interesting point. I mean, if you don't have a job, I guess, a lot of this discussion about income inequality is sort of irrelevant, at best.

CONTINETTI: Yeah. I think that's right. And I think that's one reason why the Occupiers, for example, do - have had traction, is that we do live in a time of high unemployment. And then the discussion becomes, well, I think, two-fold. One is: Is it the government's role to provide jobs to the public? And two, what type of climate should the government foster for industry and for entrepreneurship, for example? Those - I mean, those are questions that aren't easily resolved. And I personally don't believe that it's the government's role to provide jobs for everybody. I do believe, on the other hand, that there are certain policies that we have had enacted, especially in the last few years, that have made it harder for people to find work. And so there's an example, if we can go through the different policies.

NAYLOR: Well, right. And then the one thing that you do hear from the Republican candidates is the need to get read some of those, quote, unquote, "job-killing regulations..."

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONTINETTI: Right.

NAYLOR: ...that have kept people from hiring. I don't know if that's - the book is still open as to whether or not that's actually occurring. But clearly, you can - the argument is made that the government has gotten too big and interfering with the private sector.

CONTINETTI: That's right. Or certainly - I mean, I guess, the strongest case on that would be that what the government has done in the last few years just hasn't worked, I mean, that we've spent 800 billion in stimulus money. We've had record deficits of more than a trillion-and-a-half dollars over the last several years. And by every expectation of our economists - in the White House, especially - you would think that we would be producing jobs. But we haven't. So then perhaps it's time to seek other alternatives and maybe rethink our assumptions.

NAYLOR: You're to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. So, Matt, is this largely, do you think, a - would you say that this is - this whole discussion is kind of a trope of the left about income equality, or is it something that your side needs to seriously engage in?

CONTINETTI: Right. Well, it's certainly a trope of the left, right? I mean, because banner of the French Revolution was liberty, fraternity and equality. And ever since the Revolution, when we - our categories of political thought came into being, left and right, equality has been the great quest of the left, and that they view that equality - not only in the equality of rights like I mentioned, but also the equality of things, the equality of goods. And so this is definitely the left's ground.

What I'm saying is that the conservatives have an opportunity to try to take us back to the grounds that existed before the earthquake of the French Revolution, and in a way that the Founders of this country discussed equality, which is very different from the way that we discuss it today.

NAYLOR: Quick email from Steven in San Rafael, California: I believe people who have no problem with meritocracy or those who work smarter and/or harder are more amply rewarded. Witness the popularity of someone like Steve Jobs. The problem arises when some are able to amass great fortunes, not through merit, but through corruption and the influence of money in the system. What about that, corruption, influence of money in politics?

CONTINETTI: Right. Well, I don't think anybody would be for corruption. You don't have the corruption caucus in Congress, even though some of them have issues with it. No, no one's corruption. And I think the emailer raises a good point, which an earlier caller did, too: What about these - wealth that is not justly acquired? And there, I think, the Founders would have a problem with that sort of wealth. But that just takes us to the question of: What is justly acquired? And that's a conversation we ought to have.

NAYLOR: Matt Continetti is the opinion editor for The Weekly Standard. He joined us here in Studio 3A. A link to his piece about inequality can be found at our website: npr.org. Matt, thanks for coming in today.

CONTINETTI: Thanks for having me.

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