If the political goal is to shore up his liberal base, it is also a desperate admission of eroded enthusiasm among his strongest supporters. If the intention is to reproduce the electoral success of Walter Mondale, a closer reading of the 1984 election results is recommended. Americans may love to tax their billionaires. But this does not translate into political support for a presidential candidate whose economic agenda consists mainly of envy and largess.
Whatever Obama’s political calculation, he has justified his hard left turn as a matter of morality. This ethical argument is not difficult to discern, since most of the president’s speeches now consist of hammered repetition. During his brief Rose Garden remarks on the deficit, Obama employed variants of the word “fair” at least 10 times. The rich and fortunate must “pay their fair share.” His critics defend “unfairness.” It is “about fairness.”
Obama is not only using the language of sibling disputes — “That’s not fair!” — he is echoing the defining commitment of modern liberalism. The most influential liberal political philosopher, John Rawls, wrote of “justice as fairness.” He argued that a rational, disinterested observer — someone who didn’t know the economic circumstance in which fortune might place him — would choose to minimize his risk by seeking the most equal distribution of wealth possible. Economic inequality, in Rawls’s view, could be justified only if it benefited the “worst off.” Rawls’s conception of fairness provided a moral justification for an expansive welfare state. It also reinforced an assumption among liberals that all reasonable people are egalitarians.
What is numbingly common in academia seems more startling and disconcerting in an American president. We’ve seen some hints of the Obama fairness doctrine in the past. During a 2008 debate, ABC News anchor Charlie Gibson asked the candidate if he would raise the capital gains tax on the wealthy, even if this policy resulted in lower revenue for the government. Obama answered: “I would look at raising the capital gains tax for purposes of fairness.”
Now Obama has offered his response to the fiscal crisis: maintaining unreformed entitlement commitments with a higher, more progressive tax burden in the name of fairness. This, he claims, is the only rational, disinterested choice — leaving Republicans to be mocked as unfair, irrational and self-interested. All reasonable people, it seems, are egalitarians.
There is, however, another tradition of American political thought: a belief in justice as opportunity. Instead of focusing on the fair distribution of wealth in a static economy, presidents such as Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan set out to increase the economic rewards for enterprise and ambition. They honored risk-taking, not risk-aversion. They talked not just of equality for those at the bottom of the social ladder but of a chance to rise upon it. For Lincoln, the “leading object” of the government was “to elevate the condition of men — to lift artificial weights from all shoulders — to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all — to afford all an unfettered start, and a fair chance, in the race of life.”
This is not, or at least should not be, a philosophy of sink or swim. A compassionate government will provide for the helpless and broken. A wise government will empower individuals — through education, job training and the like — to better compete in the economic race. Yet in a free society, the most important goal is not a fair outcome but a fair chance — not economic equality but social mobility in a dynamic economy.
Our economy is anything but dynamic. Economic mobility is stalled at levels lower than much of Europe’s — a serious challenge to our national identity. But it is unclear how propping up the current entitlement system with higher taxes will do much to restore economic growth or revive the American dream. These priorities are largely absent from Obama’s latest liberal agenda. And that, in the long run, is unfair to rich and poor alike.