I switched over from watching a rare Twins blowout so I could get a prime-time glimpse of the youthful and energetic Republican vice presidential nominee, Congressman Paul Ryan. He seemed earnest, sincere, engaging, a decent man and an articulate spokesman for his cause. I’ll let the fact-checkers critique his criticisms of the Obama administration and his claims that his and Mitt Romney’s plans for lower taxes for the wealthy and a voucher system for Medicare will put people back to work and balance the federal budget in a few years.
But the underlying theme of Ryan's speech and much Republican rhetoric these days is the notion that government, particularly the federal government, is the biggest obstacle in our time to individual freedom and liberty. Lower taxes, get rid of regulations that may protect the public interest, allow oil drilling in environmentally sensitive areas, unshackle corporations and wealthy individuals, allow them, under the guise of free speech, to make unlimited campaign contributions with little or no transparency and so on. That is freedom by this definition, in which government is the enemy rather than an expression of the common good.
And so when President Obama tries to point out, correctly in my view, that successful business people had help along the way in the form of a good teacher or a public transportation or road system, he is crucified for “attacking” small business owners and entrepreneurs. I salute small businessmen and women. I am one myself. But I have no illusion that whatever success I achieve is totally of my own doing. I received an excellent education at the University of Minnesota, which for the last several years has been underfunded in the name of smaller government. My children have received terrific support from many fine educators in the St. Paul Public Schools, whose budgets have been squeezed in recent years.
It is an odd time in American history to be calling for a kind of economic free-for-all in which we all make our way in the world and the strongest survive. Income disparity in America is at its greatest level in decades with the wealthiest Americans doing quite well and the middle and lower economic classes not so much. A PEW research study out earlier this month says that in 1970, the share of total household incomes that went to the middle class was 62 percent vs. 29 percent for upper class homes. By 2010, only 45 percent of the income went to the middle class while the upper class received 46 percent. Lower income households had 10 percent of income in 1970 and nine percent in 2010.
These are startling numbers. The middle class is the backbone of the country. It provides the workers and the consumers who drive the economy. Discussing these numbers is not class warfare, but a matter of economic freedom. Decreasing incomes for the middle class and increasing income disparity needs to be taken into account when we talk about even more tax cuts for the wealthiest among us and cutting programs that help the middle and lower income citizens.
Look at health care. Ryan and his Republican colleagues want to dismantle Obamacare because it insults their sense of freedom and liberty. But seen another way, a person with no health insurance has little economic freedom. A serious illness can wipe out his or her life savings. And yet with the high cost of premiums for many people outside employer sponsored programs, many people simply cannot afford to purchase insurance. Is the health care plan, which provides coverage to an additional 30 million people, an assault on freedom or a way to liberate the uninsured?
For Ryan and many Republicans, the government is the enemy except when it comes to using the government to enforce their views on social and political issues. Think of the voter i.d. amendment in Minnesota and other states. We have one of the best and cleanest voting systems in the country and yet the Republicans in the Legislature want to impose a photo i.d. requirement that critics say will make it more difficult for seniors, people of color and the disabled to vote. Is that a freedom-promoting agenda?
The same goes for the constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman. Shouldn’t gay couples have the same freedom to marry and raise a family as heterosexual couples? Ryan and his colleagues who oppose same sex marriage have deep-seated religious beliefs to support their position, I’m sure. But do they have the right to deny the freedom of two individuals who love each other? And can they tell government to stand down in a host of other areas, but use the weight of the government in the most private and personal decision two people can make?
And finally, on abortion, birth control and family planning, Ryan and his allies want to use the government to deny women their freedom to make choices that are personal, private and between them and their families.
Kathleen Parker, who is a conservative columnist, wrote critically in Newsweek about how the Republican Party is handling these social issues, particularly abortion and birth control:
“How tragically ironic that the party of small government and individual liberty may have orchestrated its own defeat by insisting on some of the most invasive state policies in the history of man. Perhaps it is time for a new kind of history.”