Plutocracy No More: A Conservative Response to Inequality

by Jeremy Kee:

“It is the power of our vote, not the size of our bank account that drives our democracy.” Thus spoke President Obama in his recent State of the Union address. The clear implication is that America is at risk of transitioning into a sort of democratic plutocracy, where the wealthiest among us dictate the rules by which the rest must abide—something the President ascribes to rising inequality faced by the nation.

Obama's State of the UnionInterestingly, conservatives have not yet seized the growing inequality issue for their own, to their detriment. If conservatives wish to maintain their mantle as curator of the American soul, then they must accept the moral obligation to fight for the wellbeing of all Americans from the richest to the poorest, rather than leave them to fight over whatever trickles down to them.  In other words, conservatives need to create their own message at how their political philosophy will combat inequality.

The president in his address may have inadvertently laid out a fine platform for conservatives to being doing precisely that.

The speech was in essence one for the left, aimed at the right. For the left, it was offered up to remind his base and those on the liberal margins why they voted him into office. For the right, it was meant to show them that perhaps President Obama truly is interested in working with them to find a middle ground between the liberal and conservative proposals.

Despite the prevailing narrative on the right of America as an archetypical Orwellian tyranny, America is not in irreparable shape, and to this idea did Obama speak. In a less politically polarized America, in which representation only matters in non-election years, it could have been a defining moment for the presidency.

At its heart this was a speech about economic inequality and upward mobility. Several issues from State of the Union’s past reappeared, such as expanding access to Pre-K and workforce training programs, but the crux of the domestic focus centered on increasing economic opportunity for the middle and lower classes, which is to say the majority of Americans.

Speaking to the issue of inequality, the president honed in on two areas – the minimum wage and equal pay for women. The president announced what had been leaked only hours before, which is that all new federal contracts would not offer a minimum wage of $10.10 per hour. This was followed by his urging of private businesses to follow suit for their employees, and for Congress to mandate it to be so.

On the topic of female equality in the workplace, the president pointed out fairly common assumption, namely that women are not paid the same as men working in the same job. This should not strike anyone as a particularly partisan issue. Payment should go to a job well done, regardless of the sex of the employee. This isn’t politics. It is simple justice. Rather than issuing a call for legislation to ensure equal pay for women, this was aimed more to the moral judgment of employers.

It is no doubt important that justice be done, and to that end it goes without saying that women should earn as much as their male counterparts for a job well done, and that those who perform jobs that the majority of our proud generation would never consider acquiescence to except in the most unimaginable of situations should be compensated at a level that allows for inflation adjusted providence. These debates need not tear us apart, but they must not be avoided. These are issues that affect the average American, and thus require not only the most expedient, but the most judicious course of action.

The conservative movement looks for ways to affect change from the bottom up, but what does this look like when actively fighting inequality?

Unfortunately, modern conservative ideals do not readily account for providing help to the poor directly. The default method of tax cuts would certainly allow for workers to keep more of their wages, but when 43 percent of American households elude the taxman a tax cut loses much of its virility. Tax cuts to the exceedingly wealthy in the hopes of a trickle down effect is research supported, however, the need for help among those in the lower echelons of society is too great to wait patiently for the economic crumbs of the wealthy.

How, then, can conservatives support the poor and battle inequality without violating their small government philosophy? Money is a construct of man, but talent and ability is something with which all are endowed. The best option–not just politically but morally as well–is community involvement and empowerment. Inequality is largely the result of societal negligence and a lack of concern for those in need. Teachers may volunteer their time to after school programs and youth groups while busy parents work their jobs or attend classes. Financial professionals may volunteer their command of the free-market to help steer the indebted out of their financial hell. With a severe excess of lawyers, why can’t some of them take on a few pro bono cases to help their neighbors get their lives back on track? All have gifts, and those gifts are meant for more than just personal advancement. Community organizing does not have to be the exclusive playground of the left; charity doesn’t have to be limited to writing a check.

By doing in our communities what President Obama envisions his administration doing on a national scale, conservatives may execute a perfectly justified end run, eliminating the need for those in need to rely as much on another top-heavy, poorly managed government program. Empowerment is the most surefooted path to fighting inequality we have at our disposal. The left empowers the downtrodden to complain and to expect help. Conservatives can and should empower those same individuals. Success breeds success. Conservatism has long sought to preserve what is good, what is beautiful, and what is true. No action more perfectly encompasses this trinity than to love one’s neighbor as oneself.

Conservatives have a chance not only to participate in the debate on inequality and economic mobility, but indeed to own it by enacting a little creativity and a lot of compassion.


Jeremy Kee is a seminarian and graduate student at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. He is a graduate of  the University of Mary-Hardin Baylor and is a contributor to The Christian Post and The Daily Caller

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