The political debate — the broader debate between the two parties, not just the campaign between President Obama and Mitt Romney — has largely hinged on inequality. Republicans have defended high (and growing) levels of inequality as the just rewards accruing to hard work and genius, while Democrats have argued for a role for government in limiting inequality. For weeks, Romney has fused his party’s defense of inequality with a defense of his own personal wealth — any suggestion that Romney’s regressive policies are tinged by self-interest, he has charged, is an attack on success itself.
Yesterday, Romney took that argument in a different direction. He moved from defending inequality to defending inequality of opportunity. The occasion was Obama noting that he had not been born with a silver spoon in his mouth. This is a standard rhetorical gambit, evoking log cabins and hard cider, and one Obama (as Alec MacGillis points out) has been using since long before Romney emerged as his opponent. Romney took it as a personal affront, and issued this sharp rejoinder:
“I’m certainly not going to apologize for my dad and his success in life,” Romney said Thursday morning on "Fox and Friends." “He was born poor. He worked his way to become very successful despite the fact that he didn’t have a college degree, and one of the things he wanted to do was provide for me and for my brother and sisters. I’m not going to apologize for my dad’s success."
Since Romney couched his defense of his wealthy upbringing in the same terms he has used to defend his own business success, nobody seems to have noticed the difference. But if you take conservative rhetoric seriously, it’s all the difference in the world. The conservative line, articulated by such figures as Arthur Brooks and Paul Ryan, makes a sharp distinction between equality of outcome, which is thoroughly evil, and equality of opportunity, which is the highest ideal. (Almost everybody opposes equality of outcome — what they oppose is virtually any steps by government to reduce inequality of outcome.) “Equal opportunity versus equal outcomes, very different political philosophy,” says Ryan.
In practice, the attempt to draw a distinction between equality of outcome and equality of opportunity collapses immediately. The number one thing parents try to do with their money is to buy better opportunities for their children. A new Brookings paper this week describes how having a more expensive home translates to better schools. The mere fact of being surrounded by richer, better-prepared students is itself an advantage. This is something we all know, of course. When you have kids, your goal is either to live in an expensive neighborhood with good public schools, or to be able to spend directly on expensive private schooling. It’s one of the things Romney himself knows — hence his comment that “one of the things [George Romney] wanted to do was provide for me and for my brother and sisters.”
Of course he did! And that is the point. The advantages George Romney transmitted to Mitt Romney include not just intelligence, height, good looks, and a stable upbringing, but a fancy private education at Cranbrook and a lot of money.
The conservative rhetoric about inequality has been attempting to sustain the pretense that Romney is merely defending his business success and the larger principle of merit. But of course, he’s also defending his own upbringing and the larger principle of inherited privilege. The fact that he did so without anybody noticing shows the degree to which, far from being “very different” things, these are one and the same.