Martin: The great debate: Equal opportunity or equal results

Martin: The great debate: Equal opportunity or equal results

January 28th, 2014 David Allen Martin in Opinion Columns

President Barack Obama will deliver his State of the Union speech tonight.

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

Are you dissatisfied with how much money you make? Do you punch a time clock day after day, only to find yourself scraping pennies together at the end of the month to pay your electric bill? Are you looking for someone to blame for this? Well stay tuned, because the 2014 midterm campaigns are going to be full of messaging crafted just for you.

I'll admit that it is more difficult to get by. Trust me, my checking account is evidence of that. But as frustrating as it is to work hard to barely make ends meet, I can't say I've ever looked to throw the blame for my fiscal deficiencies at someone else. People keep telling me, though, that I'm supposed to be mad about "income inequality" and that those rascals of the 1 percent, along with their Republican apologists, are to blame for my Ramen-heavy diet.

Critiques on income inequality are nothing new, of course. They have taken many forms over the years from the Occupy Wall Street movement to, presumably, tonight's State of the Union address.

Newly inaugurated New York City mayor, Bill de Blasio, knows full well the benefits of discussing income inequality. It wasn't until he ramped up his "haves" versus "have-nots" campaign rhetoric, that de Blasio separated himself from a pack of mayoral hopefuls. Watching him work his "a city divided" routine into an election victory took me back to an integral moment in my personal political conversion.

About 10 years ago I was roaming through a bookstore. Mind you, this was a highly unusual occurrence for me at the time, and I was probably a little lost. Anyway, the title of a book caught my eye. Stuffed in the corner of a knee-high shelf was Dinesh D'Souza's "Letters to a Young Conservative." It was on sale, so I bought it, and there began my self-led studies in political philosophy.

To start that book, D'Souza discusses the many differences between conservative and liberal thought. One of the examples that struck me - one I've been revisiting lately - is the dissimilar ways the two sides pursue the concept of equality. One group has historically approached the subject with an emphasis on the rights of opportunity, while their ideological counterweights "emphasize the equality of outcomes."

And it is disproportionate outcomes that most Democrats running for office this year will harp on. It's easy to see why if we contrast the median American household income of $51,000 against a recent Princeton University study that says it takes an annual income of $75,000 for us to reach our happiness potential. Throw in the fact that the richest 1 percent keep on getting richer, and well, folks seem to be getting fed up with this income inequality thing.

Cue those "Tax the Rich" signs.

But that's the wrong way to go about it. While we are being told that the wealthy are the villains, and that we should go after their riches, conservatives have the chance to investigate ways to correct deficits on the opportunities side of the equation. Democrats are gearing up for a battle over minimum wage, and Republicans will fight them on it. This skirmish, paired with a conservative aversion to tax increases, will make it easy for Democrats to continue casting Republicans as a party that defends the wealthy at the expense of the economically disadvantaged.

While those on the left seem obsessed with redistributing the outcomes side of the equality equation, conservatives need to find innovative ways to demonstrate their commitment to our forefathers' dream of an even playing field. Saying no to wage and tax increases just won't cut it.

Attacks from the left will be narrowly focused on leveling income. To head them off at the pass, those on the right would be smart to craft sophisticated legislation - not just talking points - that boosts opportunity, which after all, is a key component of the American Dream.

A civic engagement advocate and history teacher, David Allen Martin writes from Chattanooga.