The Failure of Partisan Approaches to Economic Opportunity

At both political conventions, we have heard a national discussion on the meaning of opportunity. Unfortunately, it has not been conducted at a very high level. Republicans endlessly repeated President Obama’s gaffe that if you started a small business, “You didn’t build that.” Democrats responded by defending government, in one prominent case calling it “the only thing we all have in common.”

Listening to this debate, you’d think that the only social options are rugged individualism or bureaucratic centralization. But the genius of American society has always been a more complex and interesting mix.

First, individual enterprise and responsibility are foundational in a capitalist economy. The system only works if there are rewards for success, as well as consequences for failure. Markets can be harsh. They are also the best, most efficient system to distribute goods and services. And when markets work properly, they honor and encourage effort and human creativity. Other systems have promised universal justice and delivered nearly universal poverty – except among the elites that do the distributing. Free markets, in contrast, have taken billions of people out of poverty in our own lifetime—an economic achievement unrivaled in history.

Second, working markets do not exist in a social vacuum. They depend on working public systems of justice and education. In the absence of the rule of law, markets can become predatory. Accumulated economic power can undermine genuinely free exchange. Education, both public and private, is essential to prepare men and women for opportunity—particularly in global markets that put a premium on advanced skills. And government is necessary to make a decent provision for the helpless.

Third, there is a broad realm between the individual and the state where opportunity can be encouraged or undermined—the realm of civil society. Strong, committed families are essential to the creation of productive citizens, instilling values, self-confidence and a work ethic. Religious institutions help pass character between generations. Charities and community institutions build habits of social trust and cooperation.

A serious approach to the cultivation of opportunity must take all of these contributing factors into account, and there are problems in each area. An overgrown state can be a burden on individual enterprise. Our education system, particularly in urban settings, is not adequately preparing children for lives of accomplishment in a new economy. And family structures have weakened, particularly among the poor, which helps to perpetuate disadvantage.

Sociologist Robert Putnam calls this a “perfectly purple problem.” He means that both conservatives (red America) and liberals (blue America) have insights to offer and contributions to make. Values and family are essential to opportunity. So are working public institutions. Eventually, both political parties will need to deepen their debate on opportunity—and find some productive common ground.

—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).