Rep. Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) ventured over to our digs at the Heritage Foundation yesterday morning to deliver one of the most thoughtful and effective defenses that I have ever heard of our free-enterprise system and of what he calls the “American idea.”
The American idea, of course, refers to the American Dream: the notion that America is an exceptional nation where every American enjoys the opportunity to rise up and realize, through hard work and individual skill, his or her dreams.
Ryan devoted much of his speech to a relentless dissection of the president’s divisive class-warfare approach to governing. He turned the tables on this insidious view of the world and laid claim to the moral and economic high ground. “Throughout human history,” he emphasized, “the American idea has done more to help the poor than any other economic system ever designed.”
A thoughtful man, Ryan clearly yearns for an intellectually honest debate that pits the philosophies of the two national parties against one another. Drop the cheap shots and the intellectual laziness. Concede that the other side, though perhaps misguided, genuinely believes that its solutions will work and is not carrying water for some evil special interest. Strive for a civil and elevating policy debate worthy of Bill Buckley’s Firing Line.
Ryan’s frustration on this point came through when he dismissed the president’s rhetoric as “petty.” Addressing Obama’s contention that Republicans favor “dirtier air, dirtier water, and less people with health insurance,” he asked: “Can you think of a pettier way to describe sincere disagreements between the two parties on regulation and health care?” An honest debate conducted with civility, he feels, would advance the conservative cause because, at the end of the day, America is a right-of-center nation.
Although he didn’t put it this way, he also seemed to draw a distinction between the routes one takes to acquire his or her wealth. The legitimate route requires hard work, self-sacrifice, innovation, risk-taking, and the other virtues we associate with the Horatio Alger stories of upward mobility. Government needs to get out of the way of these successful entrepreneurs. But there is also a subset of the wealthy who took a tainted route to riches, one that triggers what he calls “the real class warfare that threatens us.” This consists, he argues, of “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.” The solution? Conservatives must mount an assault on corporate welfare in all its forms (earmarked spending, special-interest provisions in the tax code, and regulatory provisions that reward winners and penalize losers) and end the universal nature of entitlements — i.e., stop sending Social Security and Medicare benefits to Warren Buffet and others who reasonably qualify as “rich.”
There is much more here to digest. Conservatives running for public office and those of you who find yourselves in endless ideological debates with the guy in the next cubicle or the cousin who still loves Obama would do well to read this speech closely. And repeatedly. It is, to coin a phrase, a rhetorical roadmap in defense of freedom.