The Right to Rise? Ok!

Written by David Frum on Monday December 19, 2011

In today's Wall Street Journal, Gov. Jeb Bush celebrates the "right to rise," a concept he credits to Rep. Paul Ryan.

The idea behind the phrase is a powerful one: "We have to make it easier for people to do the things that allow them to rise." At a time when Americans born into the poorest fifth of the population are less likely to rise into the next fifth than people in almost any other advanced democracy, the governor's urging is welcome. But how to make it real?

Gov. Bush's op-ed is built on the assumption that the over-regulation of business is the most important impediment to upward mobility in the United States:

The right to rise does not require a libertarian utopia to exist. Rather, it requires fewer, simpler and more outcome-oriented rules. Rules for which an honest cost-benefit analysis is done before their imposition. Rules that sunset so they can be eliminated or adjusted as conditions change. Rules that have disputes resolved faster and less expensively through arbitration than litigation.

Fewer, simpler and more outcome-oriented rules would all be welcome! But how relevant are such improved business regulations to the "right to rise"? Denmark has more regulations upon business than the US, but nonetheless manages more upward mobility.

Americans invest enormous hope in schooling as the avenue for upward mobility. Americans spend proportionately more on schooling than almost any other advanced country - twice as much as 20 years ago - even as social mobility appears to have slowed. Life chances seem to be mostly set in the first 5 years, if not the first 2. That's where leaders who are serious about the "right to rise" should be focused.

At a minimum, we ought to be asking: how do we minimize avoidable physical and mental disabilities? The first environment human beings encounter is also probably the most radically unequalizing: the womb. Drugs, alcohol, tobacco, pregnancy before age 17 or after age 35, malnutrition, obesity are all risk factors that can stunt human potential even before the child is born. The womb environment is more radically unequalizing in the United States than in most other developed countries. The World Health Organization estimates that 10.6% of North American children are born prematurely as compared to 6.2% in Europe.

There are not ready answers as to any of these problems. But if we are to recognize this new "right," don't we have to begin by thinking seriously about ensuring that Americans have the capacity to make use of the right?