Ever since ancient Athens, politics in democracies has been brutal. The conflicts that a democracy empowers ordinary people to debate are not about technical matters requiring specialized knowledge. Rather, they arise from questions about the fundamental principles, beliefs, and values that give people their identities and meaning for their lives. Such questions are not “scientific,” and the conflicts they raise will not be resolved by experts and technicians. And because these principles and beliefs are so fundamental to our self-identity and meaning, they raise intense passions. Throw in personal ambition, the lust for power, and the vanity of politicians and office-seekers, and the fights can get bloody indeed. As the Athenian playwright Sophocles said, “Free men have free tongues.”
Consider the nation’s biggest domestic problem: metastasizing debt caused by soaring entitlement spending. If the problem were simply technical, accountants could solve it. Look at the math: our debt has surpassed $15 trillion, and without entitlement reform will reach 344 percent of GDP by 2050. Spending on Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and ObamaCare would devour 18 percent of GDP by 2050, consuming all federal tax revenues. Total federal spending is slated to consume half of GDP by 2056. These numbers point to a Greece-like collapse unless entitlement spending is reined in.
Likewise, simple math discredits the solution President Obama presented in his State of the Union address alongside generous helpings of class-warfare rhetoric. Obama expressed a desire to impose a 30 percent minimum tax on the “rich,” defined as those making over $1 million. The rich, however, simply do not have enough money to solve the ballooning debt and entitlement-spending problem––confiscating outright all the wealth of Forbes magazine’s richest four hundred Americans would barely cover Obama’s 2011 deficit, let alone the cost of future entitlement spending. As for making the rich “pay their fair share,” reducing the deficit by raising taxes on the two top brackets would require preposterous tax rates of over 200 percent in 2050. Worse yet, raising the capital-gains tax, which Obama’s minimum tax on millionaires perforce would do, constitutes what Larry Kudlow calls a “tax on seed corn,” reducing the amount of capital needed for investment and economic growth. The sorry record of tax increases disconnected from spending reductions should make us all chary of giving more money to a spendthrift federal government, which has increased per capita spending 166 percent since 1965. The only solution that adds up is to cut entitlement spending and deficits.
“FAIRNESS” TURNED ON ITS HEAD
But of course, the problem isn’t about math and balancing the books. It’s about differing visions of the federal government’s role in achieving certain contested ends. Obama claims a solution to the economic crisis lies in an economy where “everyone gets a fair shot.” But what is fair? The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development reports that the United States already has the most progressive tax system among industrialized economies. The top 10 percent of taxpayers pay 45 percent of all income taxes (payroll plus personal income taxes) but earn 33 percent of market income. In Sweden, by contrast, the top 10 percent pay a percentage of taxes equal to their income: 26.6 percent. Paying a greater share of taxes than one’s share of income might strike some people as more than fair—especially considering that nearly half of Americans pay no personal income tax, while the top tenth pay 70 percent of federal income-tax revenues. But Obama has a different set of values and a different vision of what ends the government should pursue.
The central progressive goal is the equality of result predicated on the assumption of radical egalitarianism, the notion that “those who are equal in any respect are equal in all respects,” as Aristotle put it. Inequalities reflect unjust social, political, and economic structures, which require correction by government intervention. “Fairness,” then, means redistributing income to achieve an equal outcome. This in turn means taking money from those who benefit from unjust social, political, and economic advantages and giving it to those less fortunate.
That progressive ideal, which has dominated the federal government for the past eight decades, has led to the fiscal catastrophe waiting down the road: a simple lack of money to pay for all the redistributions of income intended to correct the alleged injustices of free-market capitalism. Worse yet, this obsession with equalizing outcomes stands in stark contrast to the fundamental assumptions of America’s founding: that people should be free to manage their lives and pursue happiness commensurate with their characters, beliefs, efforts, and talents. And they should be free to do so without interference from despotic technocrats who think their superior knowledge and social-engineering techniques can create an outcome better than what free people can achieve, and more just.
Moreover, the administrative despotism that seeks to provide equal access to the material goods constituting “happiness” must redefine these goods as rights, thus making them the business of government. This is what Franklin D. Roosevelt did in 1944 when he announced his “second Bill of Rights,” which included things such as a “useful and remunerative job,” a “decent home,” “adequate medical care,” and a “good education.” These pledges now serve as “an extralegal standard by which our government and its policies are judged,” Paul Rahe comments in his indispensable Soft Despotism, Democracy’s Drift.
Roosevelt’s vision contradicts the essential ideas of America’s founding, particularly individual liberty. “These good things,” Rahe writes of Roosevelt’s catalog, were not items to which anyone was simply entitled; they had to be earned, and with the earning came a certain dignity and pride. Moreover, it was up to individuals, acting on their own behalf, to determine for themselves what “happiness” meant. Liberty consisted to a considerable degree in taking responsibility for one’s own well-being and for that of one’s family. It was in possessing this liberty and in being saddled with this responsibility that men were deemed equal, and it was their possession of this liberty and the allocation to them of this responsibility that government was established to protect.
As we have seen for half a century, turning these goods into rights provided through government power destroys the self-responsibility and autonomy at the heart of personal liberty. As Alexis de Tocqueville wrote, “Every measure which establishes legal charity on a permanent basis and gives to it an administrative form creates thereby a class unproductive and idle, living at the expense of the class which is industrious and given to work.”
Conservatives believe passionately in our foundational principles, particularly individual freedom and responsibility, but progressives believe passionately that those principles are outmoded, unjust, and inequitable, and thus in need of correction. But conservatives have the evidence of history, the Constitution, and math on their side. To many progressives a belief in radical egalitarianism, fostered by the coercive power of government, is less rational and empirical than metaphysical, part of a larger narrative that gives their lives meaning. The conflict between these two radically different visions of human life and government’s legitimate purpose will necessarily be harsh, even brutal.
But conservatives have the better argument. The Republicans must put forth a strong case—based on history, the Constitution, and sound accounting—that redistributive egalitarian politics are the road not just to fiscal ruin but to further constriction of our freedom.