Advancing a Free Society

Obama, Romney, and Equality

Monday, May 14, 2012

If the test of a clever orator is the ability to sell two incompatible positions at the same time, President Obama must already rank as one of the most adept rhetoricians in American history. The President steadfastly disavows any intent to foment division between economic classes, even as he works at every step to denounce the wealthy. At Osawatomie, Kansas last December, in what was billed as an historic speech on his governing philosophy, Obama insisted “this isn’t about class warfare,” and then went on immediately to attack "the breathtaking greed of a few" and "mortgage lenders that tricked families into buying homes.”

These lines were a throwback to the class rhetoric not only of Theodore Roosevelt, whose speech President Obama was channeling, but also of cousin Franklin, who fulminated in his First Inaugural against “the unscrupulous money changers [who] stand indicted in the court of public opinion.” These attacks are ostensibly not on the rich themselves, but on the undeserving rich. These poor souls were formerly characterized mostly by their practices and disposition (unscrupulousness and greed) and their occupation (finance). President Obama has added a political dimension: refusing to buckle to his idea of paying a “fair share.” The good or deserving rich, by contrast, are those like Warren Buffet, George Clooney, and Jon Corzine, who abhor the Bush tax cuts.

In the selection of Mitt Romney as the Republican nominee President Obama has found a target too rich to pass up.

Last week marked the official start of a campaign that has been going non-stop for over a year. Addressing a large crowd at Virginia Commonwealth University, Obama directly measured his opponent, praising him as a “patriotic American” who had “run a large financial firm.” He continued: “But I think he has drawn the wrong lessons from that experience. He sincerely believes that if CEOs and investors like him make money, the rest of us will automatically do well as well."

This sketch of Republican economic theory followed Michelle Obama’s introduction, which, without directly mentioning the investor opponent, invited the audience to draw a contrast between average folks, like herself and Barack, and the privileged, who know little of life’s difficulties: “Barack Obama, he is the son of a single mother who struggled to put herself through school and pay the bills. He’s the grandson of a woman who woke up before dawn every day to catch a bus to her job at a bank.”

Since the Obama campaign is assiduously courting the woman’s vote, especially the demographic of the unmarried, there was certainly no reason to mention that Barack had a grandfather too, and that the couple, who brought Obama up for a large part of his childhood, lived a comfortable life in Hawaii. It was more important to expand on his grandmother’s plight: “And even though Barack’s grandmother worked hard to help support her family -- and she was good at her job -- like so many women, she hit that glass ceiling.  And men no more qualified than she was were promoted up that ladder ahead of her.”

The contrast here is to Mitt Romney, who had the misfortune to be the son of an intact family and to enjoy the advantages of his parents’ considerable wealth. As for the previous generation, however, it is noteworthy that Mitt’s paternal grandparents, after leaving Mexico, initially had quite a tough time of it, rising very early in the morning, no doubt before dawn, to eke potatoes out of marginal farmland in Idaho.

Winning votes is the name of the game in a political campaign. What political value does the President hope to extract from his appeal to class antagonisms? Some have supposed that what is in play here is the classic ploy to stoke envy, the desire to take away what others have. The problem with this analysis is that most Americans are not much moved by this passion. A recent Gallup poll shows that almost two-thirds of Americans believe that the nation benefits from having a class of the rich, which is the same result as twelve years ago. Still, this tactic may work to fire up his base, as Democrats are split down the middle on this question. Where President Obama might score some additional points is among those who are angry (and this would include many Republicans) at the better off who were bailed out under the doctrine of  “too big to fail.”

Probably the most important support for these attacks on the rich comes from within the intellectual classes, where various ideas of fairness and social justice have been making inroads. The simplest idea is that the level of benefits that has now been voted into law represents an unalterable minimum, secured as a matter of every person’s rights. If this level cannot be sustained under current tax rates, the money must be gotten from somewhere, which means from the rich. Forget whether the numbers add up; for the moment, it is the point of fairness that is at issue. If the current level is the minimum, being already part of a collective pact, it is impossible to ask anyone to give up a benefit before taking more from the wealthy.

The exploding budget deficit has been used, paradoxically, to work in favor of this position. Just as conservatives once employed swelling deficits as an argument to strangle the beast and stop government spending, so liberals employ the huge overhang today to justify taxes on the wealthy. The deficit, it is rightly said, is a common liability. It is therefore not a matter of anyone being against the rich or of taking from some to give to others; it is a matter of paying for what we all owe.

These arguments about fairness are backed by a developing set of ideas about the collective ownership of the wealth of society. The notion is that property is not, as our economic theory and understandings of natural rights have held, owned chiefly by individuals; instead, property is in reality and by right ought to be owned by the collectivity. This idea goes much further than the simple point, accepted by all, that judges and legislators must define the contours of private property by rulings and laws that fix contracts and modes of ownership. It challenges the very concept of the primacy of private property. The popular spokesperson for this position has been Elizabeth Warren, a professor at Harvard Law School whom President Obama appointed as interim chief of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in 2010 and who is now running for Senator of Massachusetts, challenging Scott Brown. Professor Warren instructed her audience during the campaign:

You built a factory out there? Good for you. But I want to be clear: you moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for; you hired workers the rest of us paid to educate; you were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn't have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory, and hire someone to protect against this, because of the work the rest of us did.

Because we live in an interdependent society, in which certain benefits are given to all, no one has a genuine primary claim to property. Differences in individual effort or ability (or differences in luck) are secondary, not primary factors. Morally speaking, property is public in the first instance, after which, perhaps, the law may decide on some residual basis to allow individuals to keep different amounts.

This logic can be taken a step further. It can be said that the collectivity has the primary claim to ownership not only because we all pay for essential services, but also because we happen, by chance, to belong to that collectivity itself. Michael Kinsley, the well-known political commentator, working now at Bloomberg, has argued this position:

[E]very American selling anything benefits from doing so in the world's richest market. An American doctor earns many times what the same doctor would earn in, say, India. This is not because he or she works many times harder. It's not even primarily because our government doles out hundreds of billions for health care each year. It's because we are a richer society, for reasons the American doctor had nothing to do with.

Where and when we happen to have been born—in what country and in what century—are the primary factors that determine wealth, an obvious observation that is somehow thought to undermine the claims of the industrious and the rational to individual property.  We stand on the backs of those in previous generations who built our economy and society, which in the Leftist view transfers ownership of property from the person to the collectivity, and perhaps beyond to the world community. Academics are enthralled by such sophistry, which translates into support for Occupy Wall Street. Of course, the same line of reasoning applies to their own work, as they can hardly claim primary title to their thoughts. They went to schools and universities paid for in part by the collectivity, and they live in a culture that has been created by past thinkers. Many academics acknowledge this truth, and the scrupulous among them pay their debt in the currency of the footnote. It’s a lot less expensive than a thirty-percent tax increase.