06 January 2015

Right to Rise

And we're back. I have a lot of things from the past two weeks I wanted to comment on, but for now let's begin again with breaking news. Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida and presumptive leader of the political dynasty, has taken another step toward a 2016 presidential campaign with the launch of a "leadership PAC" called Right to Rise. This is Right in both political senses of the word, affirming capitalist values and Americans' right to live by them. Bush of Florida specifically affirms Americans' right to "move up the income ladder based on merit, hard work and earned success." This right, he argues, is "the central moral promise of American economic life." It needs reaffirming, he  believes, because even though "opportunities have never been greater ... America has been falling short of its promise."

This rhetoric is classic, virtually Lincolnian Republicanism. It so happens that I've just started reading the latest attempt to write a history of the Republican party. In its opening chapters, Heather Cox Richardson's To Make Men Free stresses Abraham Lincoln's hardscrabble heritage. Abe's father was shut out of any inheritance from his father because of Kentucky's primogeniture law, and the family had tough going because slaveholders and other wealthy men inexorably monopolized resources as the rich got richer with nothing to stop them. From this history, Richardson argues, Lincoln learned that any concentration of wealth, and not just the existence of a slaveowning class, threatened equality of opportunity. Richardson will argue throughout her book that Republicans have been torn through their history between a rhetorical commitment to equality of opportunity and a real commitment to protecting property rights that renders problematic any idea of limiting concentrations of wealth.

As for Jeb Bush, it's easy to infer that he does not blame concentrations of wealth for America falling short of its promise of opportunity. We can assume from his self-identification as a conservative that he instead blames taxes and regulations, as all Republicans do. One of the great changes in Republican thinking from Lincoln's time to ours has been the relocation of the threat to opportunity from the incipient oligarchy of slaveholding, or (in Teddy Roosevelt's time) the incipient oligarchy of monopoly capitalism to the state, plain and simple. What Lincoln presumably saw as a problem, his heirs do not. Instead, they would look to the success he achieved as proof that individual "merit" and "hard work" can overcome all obstacles, and that those obstacles therefore present no political problem. As always, the proof for Republicans of equality of opportunity is that anyone, not everyone, can make it -- to demand anything else is to demand an impossible equality of result.

I'll have to read further before I can decide whether Richardson draws a fair picture of Lincoln as a sort of progressive populist. My own belief has been that Lincoln's free-labor rhetoric, much of it intended as a defense of industrial capitalism against slaveholder criticisms of its uncaring abuse of factory workers, is a wellspring of a consistent Republican "personal responsibility" ethos that blames poverty on personal failings rather than systematic unfairness. Lincoln believed no more than modern Republicans in the idea of fairness articulated by Democrats in our time, who insist that any hard work must have a reward in the form of socioeconomic security in old age and ill health. It may also be an unjustified generalization to assume that Lincoln equated slaveholding with any other concentration of wealth, or that he believed concentrations of "earned" wealth were the same sort of threat to equality of opportunity that a slave system was. While the historic left has long seen inequality of wealth as a threat to equality of opportunity, and some of the Founders thought likewise, Republicans have had a hard time, when called out on the subject, to reconcile their rhetorical commitment to equality of opportunity with their feeling that the successful individual is morally entitled to all the rewards he can earn. If, as Richardson seems to imply, equality of opportunity can only be guaranteed by a direct or indirect redistribution of wealth, then Republicans, so long as they're committed to just desserts for the successful, can't believe in any meaningful equality of opportunity beyond the bare assumption that every one of us is born with a chance. Jeb Bush's "right to rise" is really nothing more than that.

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