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

Justice as Opportunity

Michael J. Gerson


September 23, 2011
by Michael J. Gerson

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

The budget debate in Washington is now focused on the meaning of fairness.  President Obama argues that rich should pay a higher percentage of their income in taxes—what he calls their “fair share.”  Republicans counter that the wealthy already carry much of the tax burden in America and contend that higher tax rates on job creators would be unwise and unfair. 

In this argument about fairness, people are talking about different kinds of justice.  One type of justice is concerned that the vulnerable have access to basic needs of life.  But there is also the justice of getting what you deserve—in this case, being able to keep what you work for and earn.  A fair society will care for the needy and have rules that make sure property is not unjustly taken, by government or by anyone else. Sometimes these visions of fairness and justice come into conflict. 

But this conflict is too limited.  America’s greatest contribution to the debate on justice has been to add the idea of opportunity.  Instead of focusing on the static distribution of wealth at any given moment, our country has encouraged a fluid, dynamic distribution of wealth over generations. America has stood for the possibility of men and women rising in the world through their own energy and ambition. 

This is sometimes called the American Dream, but many striving people in the world share it.  And it is consistent with a Christian view of human nature.  Men and women are not only consumers who need a certain level of sustenance.  They are producers.  Their nature is fulfilled in work and enterprise.  Their ability to create new products, new ideas, new wealth and new jobs is a reflection of God’s creative image within them.  A just economic system will release and reward this potential, for the benefit of all.

You don’t hear much about opportunity in the current economic debate.  Republicans tend to talk about cutting government.  Democrats tend to talk about redistributing wealth.  Recently I’ve been reminded of the essential role that my old boss, the late Jack Kemp, used to play in these debates.  Jack, as an influential congressman and thinker, rejected zero-sum economic thinking.  He believed that the strength of America is upward mobility.  He believed that poverty is not permanent because enterprise can be found everywhere, including the inner city.  Jack argued that the best way for government, in the long run, to help the poor is to encourage entrepreneurship, ownership, investment, growth and opportunity.   

Yes, government needs to make a decent provision for the helpless and broken.  Yes, government needs to help individuals gain the education and skills necessary to compete in a free market economy.  These are important measures of fairness.  But people also need the paths, the incentives and the rewards to rise by their own effort and build the strength of their country. This is also a type of justice: justice as opportunity.  

—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).  

For more information on the Center for Public Justice framework for thinking about the role of government in poverty alleviation, see the Guidelines for Government and Citizenship on Welfare and Economic Justice.

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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.”