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Columnist: The Right needs better messaging

Sydney M. Williams

Guest columnist

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Words have meanings, which is why those who read newspapers and op-eds and listen to pundits must approach declarations and arguments with a dose of caveat emptor.

The Left claims that the goal of the Right is “unfettered” capitalism, while smugly speaking of “progressive” capitalism. To be unfettered means to be totally free from restraint, to be unleashed.

The definition of the word “progressive,” when used as an adjective refers to something that is changing gradually, that is progressing in stages. The adjectives may or may not accurately reflect the intent of the speaker or writer, so it is necessary to place the words in context.

The Left is clever: “progressive” has a soft and approachable feel, while “unfettered” has a harsh and uncompromising tone.

Conservatives are not looking for an economy swaddled in anarchy. They believe in safety nets. They recognize that many regulations serve society well by protecting consumers from damaged or spoiled goods and from unscrupulous manufacturers and marketers.

On the other hand, they also know that bureaucracies are self-perpetuating – that job security for a bureaucrat is building a bigger department, adding more rules and regulations. The 2012 Federal Register added 78,961 pages to the 1.4 million pages that had been added over the previous 20 years! As of this April, the federal tax code comprised 74,608 pages!

The Right also knows that cronyism serves both politicians and favored industries, and that it does so without regard to competition and consumers. The Right is not asking for unfettered capitalism; they are asking for relief from regulation that stifles innovation, hinders competition and hampers economic growth.

The Left does not want “progressive” or gradual change in capitalism. Coming out of the 2008-2009 recession, Democrats raised taxes, expanded entitlements and increased regulation. They have supported public unions, at the expense of students and entrepreneurs; they increased the national debt. The result has been subpar economic growth.

They disparage the Reagan economy by using terms like “trickle-down” economics, knowing that any phrase that has the word “trickle” conjures something insignificant. “Trickle-down” does, however, describe the consequence of redistribution. The Left talks about “equality” and “fairness,” which have vague and amorphous meanings – like Humpty Dumpty, they mean what they want them to mean.

What started me on this issue was a recent book by Arthur Brooks entitled “The Conservative Heart.” Mr. Brooks is president of the American Enterprise Institute. His voice has been the principal one in explaining the virtue of conservativism.

Conservativism, especially free market capitalism, has taken a beating since the credit crisis of 2007-2008. Yet it has been the policies of conservativism – family, faith, community, work and free markets – that are responsible for the significant decline in global poverty over the past 20 years.

Like Rodney Dangerfield, conservatives get little respect. In its stead have risen progressives, like President Obama, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Mr. Brooks makes the moral case for conservativism and capitalism. He points out that the number of people living in poverty – adjusted for inflation – has declined 80 percent since 1970. He cites five reasons for the decline: free trade, globalization, property rights, the rule of law and entrepreneurship.

Mr. Brooks credits the role played by the United States in the aftermath of World War II. He also notes that poverty rates in the U.S. have not declined since the mid-1960s when the “war on poverty” was launched by President Lyndon Johnson.

While American-style free enterprise was helping people in Asia and Eastern Europe, our domestic social-welfare system stymied similar efforts at home. He does acknowledge that what we call poverty today is not as dire as what it was 50 years ago.

Nevertheless, government statistics show no improvement in poverty numbers.

In 2008, then-candidate Obama ran on the slogan “change you can believe in.” He said he wanted to “roll back the Bush years” and “to fundamentally transform America.”

He accelerated our march toward a welfare state. Our relations with allies worsened; our enemies view us as weaker. Dodd-Frank added over 2,000 pages to the federal register, as did the Affordable Care Act. Big banks have become even bigger and the number of small banks has decreased.

For the first time in our history, more small businesses have closed than have opened. While birth control is now required for Sisters of the Poor, healthcare has become spottier for seniors. We hail Caitlyn – aka Bruce – Jenner as a hero, but make it more difficult for innovators like Uber.

Charter schools have expanded, but over the objections of teachers’ unions and politicians who would rather regulate than educate. Despite Barack Obama being America’s first African-American president, racism has intensified.

Unemployment has declined, but the work-force participation remains at 40-year lows. While the economy has recovered, millions of people have been added to food stamp programs and disability rolls. Income and wealth gaps have widened. Has all this been good for our pursuit of happiness?

The Right needs to do a better job in getting out their message. Their emphasis on meaningful work, family, faith and community do help people in their pursuit of happiness, as Arthur Brooks describes so well in his book. Who is happier – the welfare recipient who depends on government for his basic needs, or the individual who has a job, with the possibilities it offers?

One reason conservatives find it hard to show compassion is that, in confronting reality, they emphasize the risks of too much debt, the coming bankruptcy of entitlement programs and the importance of moral character. All are important, but consequently they come across as martinets, not as compassionate persons.

Conservatives promise opportunity – a good education and equality before the law – but not results. They know that outcomes are dependent on more than just opportunity – that aspiration, ability, a willingness to work hard, effort and discipline are integral to success.

The Left shies away from demanding personal responsibility. They require equality of opportunity, but also in outcomes. Theirs is a process, which when taken to extremes, leads to the world Kurt Vonnegut portrayed in his short story, “Harrison Bergeron.”

Words do have meanings and it is important that conservatives explain simply and understandably the role free-market capitalism played in eradicating much of the globe’s poverty. They see individuals as assets that can help themselves, while bettering their communities.

It is an optimistic vision, but also realistic. It is not the message that needs fixing, it is the messaging.

Sydney Williams, a retired stock broker, writes about politics, the economy, global affairs, education and climate, among other topics. He describes his political leanings as being based in the rapidly disappearing ideology of common sense.