The current debate on economic inequality in America is severely flawed. Liberals would have the public believe we live in the dystopian world Emile Zola’s novel Germinal. The novel follows Étienne Lantier as he arrives at Montsou to become a miner. Étienne and the other characters have to deal with abject poverty and cruel oppression, which leads to massive riots and terrorism. The miners fail in the end when the police viciously put down the strike and live an even more miserable life. Zola’s novel is clearly an indictment of the rich and supports a socialist ideology. It seems part of the modern leftist movement thinks American workers have the same problem and should overthrow the current capitalist system; this leads a false dichotomy in the debate on equality. To them either we can live in a Randian world of radical individualism and massive poverty, or we can live in a utopian Marxist world of absolute equality.

Leftists assume that if someone believes in free-market capitalism than they follow Ayn Rand’s thoughts on individualism and disregard for the poor. According to Rand, “Altruism doesn’t merely mean helping people. It means sacrificing yourself for others. Placing the interests of others above your own.” She likened this to suicide and considered altruism to be evil. This is all liberals see when they think of capitalists. So, instead they follow Marxist thought, placing equality as an absolute value above all others because history is nothing more than a class struggle. They believe that “private ownership is the cause of all the economic, social and class problems.”

Forcing this false dichotomy hurts the debate on equality and is practically disastrous. The left’s focus on equality as an absolute value, meaning the government should force equality and set aside all other values, does not take in to account how the world really works or people’s values. There are particular questions liberals need to answer about this. Should the government force equality even if it violates the Constitutional rights of the individual? What if we had to give up the freedom of religion? Or what if we had to give up due process? The focus of the debate needs to place equality among other political values we have. Economic growth needs to be the primary policy goal of fiscal policy for the government, but they should also work to alleviate poverty and lift the lowest classes up.

Should the Romney-Ryan ticket win this election, and I hope they do, there are three policies they should actively work towards that will balance America’s need for economic growth with helping the poor. First, they need to radically alter the tax system. Romney’s current plan would eliminate the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT), eliminate the death tax, cut marginal income taxes by 20%, and reduce the corporate tax to 25%. He should eliminate the AMT and death tax, but his focus on income and corporate taxes needs to be simplification, not merely cutting them. It would be better for him to create a low flat tax on income and corporations that eliminates tax deductions. He should go so far as to support a 10-15% flat tax on income and corporations with very few deductions. This tax policy would encourage economic growth while being fairer because people would pay the same in taxes.

The second policy Romney should support conservatives have typically thought anathema to free market capitalism, but it is essential. Simplifying and cutting taxes would encourage economic growth and create jobs, but if those jobs only pay minimum wage it does little to alleviate poverty or truly strengthen the economy. This is why he should support the living wage. If he did support the living wage, though, it should not be a federal standard. Instead the federal government should require each state to determine the living wage and enact it into law because different parts of the country have higher and lower costs of living. Conservatives may balk at the idea, but it should actually come from conservatives because of our belief in the social contract. People should earn a fair wage for their services. A living wage means all who have jobs would be able to live above the poverty line, both reducing dependence on government and encouraging further economic growth because of their purchasing power.

The third policy focus may seem peculiar to those who focus on equality, but fixing America’s energy problem will promote economic growth while decreasing the amount of money families spend on energy costs and reduce the cost of goods. Romney supports several good policies in energy, especially not overregulating shale oil production, streamlining the process, and opening America’s energy reserves. The proper application of energy policy will achieve the goals of spurring America’s economy forward and help lower and middle class Americans.

It is time to stop having a debate where either someone is a follower of Ayn Rand or a follower of Karl Marx. We can produce policies that both encourage economic development and growth that produces a more equal society. Liberal and libertarian policies do not create this balance; only conservative policies do.

Treston Wheat | Georgetown University | @TrestonWheat