Class is not a fixed designation in this country. We are an upwardly mobile society with a lot of movement between income groups.
The Treasury Department’s latest study on income mobility in America found that during the 10-year period starting in 1996, roughly half of the taxpayers who started in the bottom 20 percent had moved up to a higher income group by 2005.
Another recent survey of over 500 successful entrepreneurs found that 93 percent came from middle-class or lower-class backgrounds. Most were the first in their families to launch a business.
Their stories are the American story: Millions of immigrants fled from the closed societies of the Old World to the security of equal rights in this land of upward mobility.
Telling Americans they are stuck in their current station in life, that they are victims of circumstances beyond their control, and that government’s role is to help them cope with it — well, that’s not who we are.
Our Founding Fathers rejected this mentality. In societies marked by class structure, an elite class made up of rich and powerful patrons supplies the needs of a large client underclass that toils, but cannot own. The unfairness of closed societies is the kindling for class warfare, where the interests of “capital” and “labor” are perpetually in conflict. What one class wins, the other loses.
The legacy of this tradition can still be seen in Europe today: Top-heavy welfare states have replaced the traditional aristocracies, and masses of the long-term unemployed are locked into the new lower class.
The United States was destined to break out of this bleak history. Our future would not be staked on class structures, but on civic solidarity. Gone would be the struggle of class against class.
Instead, Americans would work, compete and co-operate in an open market, climb the ladder of opportunity, and keep the fruits of their efforts.
Sowing social unrest and class resentment makes America weaker, not stronger. Pitting one group against another only distracts us from the true sources of inequity in this country.
Ironically, equality of outcome is a form of inequality – one that is based on political influence and bureaucratic favoritism.
That’s the real class warfare that threatens us: a class of bureaucrats and connected crony capitalists trying to rise above the rest of us, call the shots, rig the rules and preserve their place atop society. Their gains will come at the expense of working Americans, entrepreneurs and that small businesswoman who has the gall to take on the corporate chieftain.
It’s disappointing that this president’s actions have exacerbated this form of class warfare in so many ways.
These actions starkly highlight the difference between the two parties that lies at the heart of the matter: Whether we are a nation that still believes in equality of opportunity, or whether we are moving toward an insistence on equality of outcome.
If you believe in the former, you follow the American Idea that justice is done when we level the playing field at the starting line, and rewards are proportionate to merit and effort.
If you believe in the latter kind, you think most differences in wealth and rewards are matters of luck or exploitation, and that few really deserve what they have.
That’s the moral basis of class warfare — a false morality that confuses fairness with redistribution, and promotes class envy instead of social mobility.
I’d like to introduce President Obama to the Ronald Reagan he isn’t so eager to quote – the man who said, “Since when do we in America believe that our society is made up of two diametrically opposed classes – one rich, one poor – both in a permanent state of conflict and neither able to get ahead except at the expense of the other? Since when do we in America accept this alien and discredited theory of social and class warfare? Since when do we in America endorse the politics of envy and division?”
President Reagan was absolutely right. Instead of policies that make it harder for Americans to rise, let’s lower the hurdles to upward mobility.
Paul Ryan (R-Janesville.) is chairman of the U.S. House Budget Committee. This blog was excerpted from a speech Ryan delivered Wednesday to the Heritage Foundation.