Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Republican Arguments for Social Mobility and the Common Good

Michael J. Gerson


October 26, 2012

By Michael J. Gerson 

This is a transcript of a radio address broadcast for the Center for Public Justice on KDCR radio in Sioux Center, Iowa.

The final stages of a presidential election are usually not a feast of reason. It is usually a time for us-against-them stump speeches and negative ads, and we are currently hearing plenty of both. 

But there was a recent, unexpected exception. On Oct. 22, Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan delivered a serious speech on political philosophy at Cleveland State University in Ohio. The arguments he made should have come earlier in the political season, but they are still welcome. 

Ryan correctly diagnosed a serious social crisis that I have often raised before: the chronic weakness of social mobility in America. “There is something wrong in our country,” he said, “when 40 percent of children born to parents in the lowest fifth of earners never know anything better. The question before us today—and it demands a serious answer—is how do we get the engines of upward mobility turned back on, so that no one is left out from the promise of America?”

Ryan roots this problem in mediocre schools that regularly fail poor and minority children, as well as the perverse incentive structures of Great Society welfare programs. In my view, he did not adequately address the deep, structural economic changes that have removed decent, blue-collar jobs from many communities, leading to hopelessness and social decay. 

But Ryan affirmed two essential principles that all Americans—including members of his party—need to understand.

First, he said that “equality of opportunity hasn’t always been a fact of life in our country – it’s been something we’ve had to constantly fight for.”  Equal opportunity, in other words, is a social achievement, requiring effort to prepare citizens for the exercise of opportunity. 

Second, Ryan asserted that both government and civil society have important and complementary roles in encouraging opportunity.  “There has to be a balance,” he argued, “allowing government to act for the common good, while leaving private groups free to do the work that only they can do.” He had particular praise for religious groups.  “What’s really at work here,” Ryan said, “is the spirit of the Lord, and there is no end to the good that it can inspire.” 

The policy initiatives that Ryan outlined were, at best, incomplete. The Romney-Ryan campaign is strongest on K-12 education reform, where its proposals are most fully realized. It talks of the need for more efficient and effective job retraining programs. It shows less creativity on early childhood education, wealth building, encouraging college attendance and other measures build social capital and promote social mobility. And I’d like to see a more specific commitment that overall budget austerity—which is necessary—does not undermine important programs for the poorest and most vulnerable. 

But it is a good and positive thing when a Republican candidate talks of promoting social mobility and the common good—even if the argument comes late. 

—Michael J. Gerson is nationally syndicated columnist who appears twice weekly in The Washington Post and is the author of Heroic Conservatism (2007) and the co-author of City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era (2010).   

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”