This column is unusual because, first, it’s written to praise rather than condemn; and second, the praise is for two subjects usually more likely to be criticized: commencement addresses, and the chairman of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, Ben Bernanke.

In June, Bernanke gave the commencement speech at Princeton that includes these words: “Putting aside the reality that no system, including our own, is really entirely meritocratic, meritocracies may be fairer and more efficient than some alternatives. But fair in an absolute sense? Think about it.

“A meritocracy is a system in which the people who are the luckiest in their health and genetic endowment; luckiest in terms of family support encouragement, and probably, income; luckiest in their educational and career opportunities; and luckiest in so many ways difficult to enumerate — these are the folks who reap the largest rewards.

“The only way for even a putative meritocracy to hope to pass ethical muster, to be considered fair, is if those who are the luckiest in all of those respects also have the greatest responsibility to work hard, to contribute to the betterment of the world, and to share their luck with others.”

He then quoted a Bible verse, Luke 12:48: “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.”

“Kind of grading on the curve, you might say,” Bernanke said.

This eloquent case for social responsibility comes from a man appointed three times to high economic policy posts by George W. Bush. Bernanke has been an exponent and practitioner of thoughtful capitalism, both as an academic economist and as the single most influential economic policymaker in the past decade.

He provided leadership in dealing with the financial crisis of 2008, and he was a strong advocate of tough regulatory policies going forward.

And even though many of them objected to his support for strong regulation, he is so well regarded by leaders in the financial community — although they refuse to defend him against attacks from the right-wing politicians whom they fund — that if he were to announce his resignation tomorrow, the market would drop steeply.

So when he reminds those whose talents, education and backgrounds have led them to great wealth and power that a significant element of luck is involved in the very fact that they enjoy those qualities — and that this should move them to help those not so fortunate in their personal qualities — he cannot be dismissed as an anti-free market scold who lacks an understanding of what a capitalist economy requires.

President Obama and U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren said the same thing: “You did not build this business all by yourself.” But Bernanke’s wording is much harder for the right to mock.

What Bernanke does is reject the view that society must choose between policies that unleash the productivity of our most talented people and policies that offer help to those less able to achieve material wealth on their own.

Bernanke has put this philosophy into practice as chairman of the Federal Reserve. More than almost all Republicans and many Democrats, he has focused on the importance of reducing unemployment. Unfortunately, this concern has brought him condemnation from the right and too little praise from the left.

In my next column, I will explain why people on the left should be supporting him, and speculate as to why so few of them do.

Barney Frank is a retired congressman and author of landmark legislation. He divides his time between Maine and Massachusetts.


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