Do Americans Have a 'Right to Rise'?

In asserting they do, Jeb Bush's new PAC seems to contradict conservative catechism—and shows the challenge he faces as a presidential contender.

Susan Walsh/AP

If Jeb Bush is trying to show Republicans that he’s conservative enough to be their nominee, he has a strange way of showing it. Consider the manifesto of his newly created political action committee, The Right to Rise. It defines income inequality as a core economic problem: “While the last eight years have been pretty good ones for top earners, they’ve been a lost decade for the rest of America … the income gap is real.” In today’s GOP, that’s edgy enough. In a Pew poll last spring, only 19 percent of Republicans called the divide between rich and poor a “very big problem.” And when asked why that gap exists, a plurality of Republicans said it was because the poor don’t work as hard.

But from a conservative perspective, Bush’s real heresy is his PAC’s name itself: “The Right to Rise.” For close to a century now, conservatives have generally argued that Americans have rights from things, not rights to them. God endows individuals with rights like freedom of speech, religion, and of course, the ownership of firearms. And the Bill of Rights protects individuals from having those rights trampled by an oppressive government.

The notion that in addition to these rights from governmental intrusion Americans also have rights to a minimum standard of economic well-being was made famous by Franklin Roosevelt. In his 1944 State of the Union Address, FDR outlined a “Second Bill of Rights” that included “the right to a useful and remunerative job,” “the right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation,” “the right of every family to a decent home,” the right to adequate medical care,” “the right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment,” and “the right to a good education.”

Ever since FDR outlined these “positive rights,” rejecting them has constituted an important part of what it means to be an American conservative. Conservatives don’t oppose good education, good health care, and good jobs, of course. But they have long opposed calling them rights, for fear that doing so would undo the limitations on government power outlined at the nation’s founding. In a section of its website entitled “First Principles,” the Heritage Foundation asserts that “The original Bill of Rights” outlined activities to “be protected from federal government interference. By contrast, Roosevelt’s rights require ever-expanding federal government programs .… The new conception of rights diminishes the older notion, in particular an individual’s claim on his own property and even his own conscience and intellect, as life becomes more socialized in all its spheres.”

Glenn Beck is blunter. For years, he has cited Obama confidant Cass Sunstein’s 2004 book, The Second Bill of Rights: FDR’s Unfinished Revolution—and Why We Need It More Than Ever, as evidence of just how socialistic this administration really is. “If government provides everyone jobs, pay, a home and medical care, how would that work?” Beck demanded in 2009. “Simple: communism. All the money goes to the government, who then redistributes it equally: equal pay, equal homes, equal medical care—equally bad. We saw how the system worked for the Soviet Union and China, that’s why the Second Bill of Rights ended up on the scrap heap of history. Oh, but our neo-progressives [in the Obama administration] have pulled it off that heap, dusted it off, shined it up and put a fresh coat of lipstick on that same, old, disgusting pig.”

Except now the lipstick is being applied by Jeb. “The right to rise” may sound more entrepreneurial than the right to health care, housing, and a decent job, but it amounts to the same thing. For Beck and the Heritage Foundation, the genius of America’s founders was their recognition that Americans had the right to rise or fall based on their talents and the wisdom of the free market. Government’s role was to get out of the way.

In the 2011 Wall Street Journal op-ed in which Bush first borrowed the phrase “Right to Rise” from Paul Ryan (how Ryan feels about that borrowing is unclear), he actually did say that Americans also have the right to fall. “We need to let people take risks,” Bush wrote. “We need to let people fail. We need to let people suffer the consequences of bad decisions.”

But now that he’s running for president as the Republican who can win over non-Republicans, Jeb has jettisoned that part. His PAC’s mission statement begins, “We believe passionately that the Right to Rise—to move up the income ladder based on merit, hard work and earned success—is the central moral promise of American economic life.” But it never mentions American’s right to not rise, or anything about the risks that capitalism brings.

As a result, his rhetoric effectively makes upward mobility a government obligation. Since the free market creates winners and losers, as Bush himself acknowledged in his Journal column, the unfettered capitalism he claims to support can never guarantee a right only to rise. If taken seriously, such a right would require guarantees of the kind FDR envisaged: government programs that boost every poor American’s standard of living beyond where it is now. That’s precisely what Beck and Heritage fear, since they see it as a license to empower the state, shackle capitalism, and destroy individual freedom.

Why does this matter? Because the name of Bush’s PAC illustrates the problem facing any Republican candidate who wants to win both his party’s nomination and the presidency. The GOP activists who heavily influence the primary process want a candidate who will defend conservative principles, which in part means defending capitalism as a system that brings economic opportunity and economic risk, not economic security. That’s what Jeb the private citizen did in his Wall Street Journal op-ed. But the Americans a Republican must woo to win the White House want greater economic security. Between unprecedented globalization and dizzying technological change, American capitalism is providing them more than enough risk already and they’re seeing much of the opportunity it produces going to the one percent.

As a result, Jeb is defending capitalism as a system that guarantees upward mobility, with the implied promise that government will step in if it does not. Will this impress swing voters? It’s too early to tell. But it’s unlikely to impress real conservatives, who will sooner or letter realize that a politician they already distrust is trying to have it both ways.