The Ryan Lecture

Solidarity, envy, and the dangers of a society that sees itself divided between rich and poor

“Look, it is rare in American politics to arrive at a moment in which the debate revolves around the fundamental nature of America democracy and the social contract. But that is exactly where we are today.”

— Congressman Paul Ryan, Whittington Lecture, Georgetown University, April 26, 2012.


Plato often spoke of the dire consequences when a society becomes divided in its own mind between rich and poor. The social order becomes a war of sorts between the two factions of the same polity, each side blaming the other for the predicament of everyone. The American founders were especially concerned that this division should not arise in the new nation. This division usually represents a breakdown of any sense of common union or common good that recognizes individuals’ necessary differences in contribution, intelligence, good will, and willingness to bear burdens in the society. “Civil public dialogue goes to the heart of solidarity, the virtue that does not divide society into classes and groups but builds on the common good of all,” Paul Ryan remarked in his notable lecture at Georgetown University on April 26. We associate the term “solidarity” with John Paul II and the Polish labor movement. But Ryan’s definition of it is as good as any I have seen.

Like Plato’s specialization principle, solidarity recognizes that not everyone is the same, or wants to be, or can be. The fact that not everyone can (or wants to) do everything constitutes the foundation of the very richness of society and the meaning of the common good. This approach is the opposite of a society charged through with envy, in which any distinction of wealth or honor is taken to be unwarranted. Envy is a much more pervasive and spiritually dangerous social vice than we realize. It is almost never recognized for what it is: a refusal to admit and acknowledge what is good and worthy in others. Envy as a spiritual disorder of the soul is much more dangerous and undermining to a society than greed ever was, even though both are vices. We often call “greed” what is really envy.

The Ryan Lecture had many points that were matters of judgment. He commented on the budget, on how social thought was applied to concrete issues, on the failures of many of President Obama’s policies, on Medicare, the growing debt, and Europe’s more advanced welfare crisis. In a graphic phrase, Ryan worried that ours may well be the first generation of Americans to leave their children poorer than their parents left them. “We face a struggling economy and the probability of greater turmoil ahead.” These are sober words.

In the lecture, Ryan cited his mentor, Congressman Jack Kemp: “You can’t help America’s poor by making America poor.” This proposition went hand and hand with Ryan’s earlier comment on Lincoln: “We needed a solution to restore the American idea—an opportunity society, in which government’s role is not to rig the rules and aim for equal outcomes but—in the words of Abraham Lincoln—‘to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all,’ so that all may have an equal opportunity to rise and freely pursue their happiness.” Sometimes we call this “American exceptionalism,” as Ryan does, but its broader scope is the nature of the common good itself. The phrase “opportunity society,” in this context, is a rich one.

The Kemp proposition is crucial to understand. If we think of government as primarily an agency whose main function is to redistribute whatever wealth is produced to the poor—however “the poor” are politically defined—we will inevitably bankrupt everyone. The poor have most at stake in a struggling economy. In Scripture, we find little discussion of the poor helping the poor. It is always the rich who are called on. But the same Scripture gives little guidance on the issue of how and why wealth is produced. There are a few, of course. The parable of the talents suggests that wealth is to be gained, that not to make any effort to increase one’s wealth is reprehensible. Paul’s famous “he who does not work, neither let him eat” is always jarring to the ideologue.         


But wealth needs to be produced. And before this can happen, it must be envisioned. The ultimate wealth is not land or goods but human intelligence and ingenuity. Government, for all its importance, is probably the least efficient agency to take this function of producing wealth to itself. Ryan was right to point out the tendency of the present administration to assume more and more control of the nation’s wealth and how it is distributed. This accumulation of wealth gives government huge power over citizens who are increasingly dependent on it. They are increasingly afraid to oppose its growth for fear that they will be cut out of societal benefits. Indeed, there is considerable speculation that this growing dependence of more and more citizens on the government is precisely what many politicians, bureaucrats, and other interested parties want. This leaves a mass of voters who do not dare oppose the state but who demand more and more for themselves.

“We need to restore the principle that those who seek to reap the gains in our economy also bear the full risk of the losses,” says Paul Ryan. The other side of this proposition is also true. Those who receive benefits from the society must seek to make themselves independent of this support. Generations of welfare recipients suggest that we only make things worse by not facing this principle. We have gotten into a situation where “charity” is perceived as something the government does under various guises.

It is very tempting for a government, moreover, to understand itself as the primary savior of society. The poor become a constituency bound to the government, which sees its primary obligation as supporting more and more “poor.” The help of the poor has become a primary justification of political power. Instead of seeking ways to make citizens independent of this political power by enabling wealth to be produced by citizens, the service state sees itself as taking from the rich and giving to the poor, with the small exchange of votes and political support.


The central thesis of the Ryan Lecture, as I understand it, is that the primary purpose of any public policy is to help people help themselves. This approach meant restoring, through tax policies, monies to the people—monies that originally belonged to them—to allow them to become independent. The alternative, usually posed in the name of “care of the poor,” had the effect of undermining the incentive and work ethic of the poor. It made them more and more dependent on the state. The debate is not about whether some people need help, but whether a good percentage of society needs government to do its bidding. The disincentives to economic growth imposed by the tax burdens needed to pay for huge increases of dependency in turn further undermine the productive and incentive sectors of society. These areas are largely responsible for growth itself. To penalize them is to penalize everyone.

In addition to this problem, we have the presence of large anti-growth ideology coming from various sources, including anti-population growth groups. These often restrict the very possibility of finding ways to solve our problems. They increase stagnation through governmental dependency and control. The political overtones of this position are found in those sentiments that the president often expresses, of America’s withdrawing from any major role in the world. There seems to be a connection between this foreign policy agenda and the anti-growth and government-control factors at the domestic level.

“Government is one word for things we do together,” Ryan observed. “But it is not the only word. We are a nation that prides itself on looking out for one another—and government has an important role to play in that. But relying on distant government bureaucracies to lead this effort just hasn’t worked.” We need an “opportunity society,” not a dependent one, not one that thinks of America in the same terms as European welfare states, which are finding that their own welfare policies are financially breaking and ruining their societies.

E.F. Schumacher once remarked there is really no “economic” problem. We know how to clothe, feed, and shelter. What we lack is the political will to acknowledge that government is at most a balance, a forum, not the producer and distributor of our goods. We often do not see the connection between jobs and high taxes. We think that increasing taxes will help the poor. Instead, it will make them not only poorer but dependent on a government willing to control every side of their lives, including—as we now know—the religious side. Jack Kemp had it right, as Paul Ryan said. “You cannot help America’s poor [or anyone else’s] by making America poor.”

The poor are not poor because the rich are rich. The only way for the poor to hope to increase their wealth is for the economy itself to grow as a result of their own endeavors. This is the classic notion that we must allow reward and incentive to flourish. If we take these away, no one will do anything to help himself. Everyone will become more dependent on a government increasingly willing to claim that it is itself the solution. Americans once knew this approach of the all-caring government was, to put it mildly, counter-productive and even dangerous.

The heart of the Ryan Lecture was an awareness that we have reached a crossroads. Either we can finally give up and call on a government ever-more willing to control more and more of our lives, or we can begin to return power to individuals and other units of society. We need to face the fact that our greatest political problem today is a government that no longer sees itself as limited and bound to principles protecting religion, economics, the poor, and the vast majority who are willing and capable of helping themselves—if they are allowed to do so.

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About James V. Schall, S.J. 180 Articles
James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019) taught political philosophy at Georgetown University for many years until retiring in 2012. He was the author of over thirty books and countless essays on philosophy, theology, education, morality, and other topics. His of his last books included On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018 (Ignatius Press, 2018) and The Politics of Heaven and Hell: Christian Themes from Classical, Medieval, and Modern Political Philosophy (Ignatius, 2020).