01/12/2012 10:57 am ET Updated Mar 13, 2012

Whose Vision of Freedom? Ron Paul or MLK

Ron Paul -- the same guy that was burned up by having a holiday for Martin Luther King Jr. -- declared in his New Hampshire second place finish speech that he wants to restore freedom to America. This sounds great until we realize that the kind of freedom on offer only appeals to those who profit from rising inequality.

During his recent visit to Osawatomie, Kan., President Obama outlined a populist vision for combating inequality sharply at odds with a plutocratic one.

Plutocrats have faith in the so-called engineers of economic growth -- the entrepreneurial class. But we're not talking the Mom and Pop small business entrepreneurs that have been run off Main Street by big corporate chain stores. We're talking big businesses that have hundreds, even thousands, of employees and make millions, even billions, of dollars around the globe.

Plutocrats want you to have faith in big businesses generating enough wealth for everyone. They want you to trust that wealth will trickle down from top to bottom, and that this will reduce inequality by creating more haves and fewer have-nots. They also want you to help them and their lobbyists socially engineer the best environment for big businesses to operate in America. This includes allowing them to buy cheaper labor overseas, stock their shelves with products made in China, to bust up unions serving the interests of American workers, and to unite citizens who want to make it easier for corporations and super PACs to buy political candidates and elections.

To prime the pumps for corporate growth, plutocrats want you to make sure that the right rules and regulations favoring big business are in place -- even if this means possibly getting screwed if the wealth doesn't trickle down, getting fired or being underpaid because your labor is too expensive, or losing your benefits and bargaining rights because your union has been run out of town. Most importantly, they want you to help them get big government out of the way of big business so that hard-working Americans have no one to fight for their square deal.

Populists have always been concerned with the little guy, the weak, the disabled, the bullied, the vulnerable, the poor, the tired, and the huddled masses. This helps explain why populists have historically opposed chattel slavery, Jim Crow, and voter disenfranchisement, and why they have supported child labor laws, union organizing, unemployment insurance, social security, health care, and anti-discrimination laws. And it now explains why they reject the faith that plutocrats have placed in big businesses to deliver America from unfair inequality.

You have been asked to trust that the advantages afforded big businesses -- by socially engineering favorable regulations, tax codes, and a weak federal government -- will trickle down from Wall Street to Main Street. But the reluctance of bailed out banks to lend money, and big businesses to hire Americans and pay them a decent wage, shows that such trust would be foolhardy.

Why trust a vision of how to address inequality, and get America back on the right track, that has brought the federal government, state and local governments, and ordinary American households to the brink of financial ruin?

At the root of what divides plutocrats and populists over how to address inequality is a timeless American value. Both parties champion the value of freedom. Their common commitment to freedom unites them as red-blooded Americans. It explains why they pledge allegiance to the same flag and stand united to honor their returning soldiers and ones lost to war. But plutocrats and populists have very different philosophical understandings of freedom, which have different law and public policy implications.

Plutocrats have been exclusively preoccupied with promoting and protecting the freedom of big businesses to be left alone to generate wealth. They have championed deregulation, tax cuts for the wealthy, and bank bails out to promote plutocratic freedom.

Populists have insisted upon securing the necessary preconditions for individual freedom -- security, shelter, work, health, education, and nutrition. And they have championed policies that target substantive inequalities in these areas.

Freedom has long been a value for which Americans have been willing to draw blood -- from slavery, to the world wars, the civil rights movement, and the War on Terror. Americans have demonstrated their unwavering resolve to fight for freedom. The current war on inequality must also be fought in the name of freedom, but not in the plutocratic sense. It must tap into the populist vision of freedom, which embodies a more robust commitment to this timeless American value and which has much deeper roots in American history.

During his last days, Martin Luther King Jr. directed America's stride toward the city of freedom by calling upon the people to demand that the power of government be used to address inequality, unemployment, and the powerlessness of everyday people whose cherished liberties were not being protected.

Ron Paul and Martin Luther King Jr. would agree about the importance of restoring freedom to America. However, if we are burned up not by the MLK Day holiday but by the social engineering to advance the freedom of a select few, King's vision of freedom is clearly the way forward.