What’s the most reliable way to overcome obstacles to personal progress: to change your own behavior, or to get other people to change the way they treat you?
Contemporary liberalism emphasizes the transformation of institutions and organizations, rather than of individuals. This badly mistaken stress gives conservatives a precious opening to identify themselves as the only true advocates of plausible, personal, growth and change.
Anyone who has ever confronted some form of economic, social or family adversity – in other words, every American – knows beyond question that it’s easier to change yourself than to change the world. Personal growth may be difficult, even painful, but it’s a process that an individual can mostly control. To concentrate instead on altering the approaches of others, amounts to a dubious, often impossible prospect –and leads to the disastrously misguided policies of the international left.
Take the issue of raising the minimum wage – the principal priority for the president and his partisan allies as they campaign for the November elections. They promote a sweeping government mandate for a big pay increase with no corresponding enhancement in the skills of workers or the value of their work. Those who toil at the bottom of the income ladder normally get raises linked to job experience and proven reliability; no one who manages to keep a job works for long without some improvements in pay. But rather than encouraging such personal progress on the part of employees, Democrats insist on immediate, unconditional alteration in compensation by employers and society at large.
Similarly, the liberal obsession with extending unemployment benefits does nothing to improve the status of the jobless themselves – in fact, statistics show such extensions delaying or discouraging re-entry into the work force. Rather than addressing the real problems of the long-term unemployed and changing their prospects of finding a job, such extensions merely alter the bureaucratic management of their plight and serve to perpetuate a painful situation.
On the issue of education, this liberal preference for authoritarian, top-down solutions actually undermines the hopes of struggling parents who yearn to maximize the chances for their children. Many of these mothers and fathers hope to escape inadequate, dysfunctional public schools and clamor for charter alternatives, opportunity scholarships or other forms of educational choice. Leftist leaders not only seek to limit new options but New York’s mayor even wants to cut back on already existing charter schools that serve thousands of grateful students. The mindset behind such insanity reflects the core liberal notion that change only counts when it is systemic or institutional, not individual. Opponents of school choice argue that if we can’t transform entire school systems for everybody then it’s unfair to offer personal progress for anybody.
Progressives also stress governmental, command-and-control responses to the challenges of racial justice, discarding the self-help emphasis championed by great black leaders from Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington to Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. If black males are disproportionately arrested, imprisoned and shot dead on the streets, the politically correct response demands changes in police practices rather than addressing the greater vulnerability of such young men to gang activity and thug culture. When minority students under-perform academically, the preferred response from the educational establishment involves fostering double-standards, with lower, race-based expectations, rather than actually improving performance. “Affirmative action” represents one of the most glaring examples of the effort to help the disadvantaged by adjusting the way the world responds to them rather than enhancing their ability to compete on an unbiased basis.
The noble goal of the original civil rights movement concerned the removal of blatant discrimination that prevented even talented and industrious individuals from realizing their potential. Mandating preferential treatment for historically disadvantaged groups, on the other hand, dictates better economic and educational outcomes without requiring, or even expecting, better performance or productivity.
Conservatives and Republicans must continue to reject such demeaning strategies while embracing the chance to brand themselves as the party of personal growth and individual transformation. Liberals obsess over solving problems of poverty and middle class stress by altering social and economic arrangements without changing the choices or conduct that lead to pain in the first place. They base this preference on the irrational, ultimately indefensible assumption that every personal difficulty arises from unalterable circumstance, and that it’s easier to change society than to improve individuals. Conservatives know better and must unapologetically affirm our quintessentially American belief that all citizens can better their own conditions when inappropriate barriers have been cleared from their paths. Private progress need not wait for complex legislative schemes or sweeping systemic change. An exasperated public will surely respond to a new politics of personal growth and individual transformation that connects to the most aspirational elements of our national character and reflects the intimate, intergenerational experience of nearly every family in this nation of fresh starts and new beginnings.