I am optimistic but also believe that in making his economic case, the Republican candidate will have different challenges because of the ongoing growth of our welfare state and the attitudes it has ushered in, along with heightened class warfare.
We could be seeing a paradigm shift in the way people view their social compact with government. More and more people believe that government exists not just to perform essential services as delimited in the Constitution, but as a grand equalizer of economic outcomes.
It's one thing to argue that those who earn more should pay a higher percentage of their earnings in income tax. But it's a completely different idea to suggest that the government should use the tax code and other legislative schemes not just to ensure sufficient revenues to operate the government, but to more equitably distribute people's remaining income -- or, possibly, assets.
This is not just a matter of semantics. In this new paradigm, some contend that irrespective of the government's operating needs, it has a moral right -- and a duty -- to proactively intervene to redistribute income.
I observe this latter attitude with increasing frequency. It's not just President Obama indicting corporations and "obscene profits" by saying that the wealthy should spread the wealth around and that at some point, people have made enough money.
It's liberals I encounter who are constantly complaining about the "largest wealth gap in our history" and blaming it on George W. Bush and the evils of capitalism.
In their disappointingly simplistic view (articulated in an email I received), the Bush tax structure created this "gap" by "transferring money from the middle class to the rich ... and transferring our debts to our grandchildren."
But wait. Under the Bush tax rates, higher-income earners paid a higher percentage of their income in taxes. Any transfer of wealth was from higher-income earners to lower-income earners. Plus, almost half the people don't pay income taxes at all, and some 60 percent take more from the government than they pay in.
I told the emailer he was factually wrong and also misguided to believe it is government's function to proactively redistribute wealth. (We're talking more than safety nets here, by the way.)
He replied, "Yeah, the CEO of Disney 'earned' $50 million last year without the help of government through the invisible hand of the market."
Note the palpable contempt. He and others convince themselves that government is greasing the skids for high-income earners, but what they're really angry about are the inherent disparities of outcomes under a free economic system. Whether or not they realize it, they don't much like capitalism, which is why they're always pushing us toward socialism.
These same people also seem to object to disparities of income between Americans and the rest of the world. They apparently believe it is morally wrong that we are more prosperous than other nations and consume more of the world's resources.
It only follows that we would detect a disturbing correlation between their anti-capitalist mindset and their attitude toward economic prosperity and even debt tolerance. Those who have a chip on their shoulder about capitalism and America's wealth don't seem to be nearly so anxious about the nation's growing debt crisis. They either naively assume it's not that bad or figure that even if it is, there's nothing wrong with America's getting its comeuppance. Maybe an economic meltdown would put us in our place -- and in the meantime, it might cause us to draw down our evil "military-industrial complex" and our warmongering arsenal.
I am not suggesting that leftists of this particular stripe wish economic harm on the nation, but I am saying they look admiringly at European socialism, with its perennial unemployment of 15 percent. I am saying that they believe the government should proactively redistribute wealth -- to a much greater extent than it is doing now. I am saying that they are wholly unbothered by the obvious unfairness that almost 50 percent of the people pay no income taxes. And I am saying that most of them either don't understand that their prescriptions to equalize outcomes rather than opportunity inevitably result in less for everyone or don't care because they believe it's preferable for everyone to have much less than it is for some to have a great deal more than others under a free system.
This kind of thinking is dangerous to a free and prosperous society, and as 2012 approaches, conservatives have to address it and start remaking their moral case for capitalism and liberty. Under this ever-softer society, that's quite a tall order.