Avik Roy argues in the National Review Online that
For many of today’s conservative reformers [e.g., Roy, Reihan Salam, or Ross Douthat], equality of opportunity — especially for the poor — is the highest moral and political priority. As AEI’s Arthur Brooks wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “the answer is to make improving the lives of vulnerable people the primary focus of authentically conservative policies.”
Ezra Klein is skeptical. He argues that the actual policies promoted by ‘opportunity’-focused Republican leaders such as Representative Paul Ryan would in practice promote inequality of opportunity.
On the Republican side, Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.) has taken the lead in arguing that conservatives should focus on opportunity. But his approach largely consists of cuts to the safety net. The policies enshrined in his budget suggest that the poor are held back by the government spending too much money to cover the uninsured and too much money on food stamps and too much money on education and too much money on childhood nutrition and too much money on daycare.
I share Klein’s concerns about the likely consequences of Ryan’s policies. Moreover, I agree with his view that in judging policies, what matters is the policies’ consequences rather than the principles that purportedly justify them.
However such considerations do not require us to believe that Roy’s commitment to equality of opportunity is just a change in messaging rather than moral substance. That would suggest that conservative reformers’ professions of egalitarian commitments are in bad faith. It is not only more charitable but also more likely that Roy simply believes that Ryan’s policies would promote equality of opportunity.
Moral argument is important and I am sure that Avik Roy and I still disagree about many things. Nevertheless, I was happy to read his paean to equality of opportunity. Finding moral common ground allows us to clarify our disagreements on policy. To the degree that we have common goals, we can focus debate on the means to those goals. These debates will be more empirical. We can argue about experimental data and its interpretation. That’s progress.