I want to spend some time talking about . . . a dangerous and growing inequality and lack of upward mobility that has jeopardized middle-class Americas basic bargain that if you work hard, you have a chance to get ahead. I believe this is the defining challenge of our time: making sure our economy works for every working American. Thats why I ran for president. It was the center of last years campaign. It drives everything I do in this office.
President Barack Obama, 12/04/13
Inour last essayin this series on contemporary applications of The Federalist Papers, we argued that the case for limited government is made more difficult in our age because many American leaders, in following William Jamess lead, have been successful in engaging in the moral equivalent of war against the Founders regime. President Obama has been consistently militant in pursuing a progressive domestic agenda during his presidency.
Yet too many within the beltway conservatariat have insisted that the best way to counter militant progressivism is by offering a governing agenda that combines the worst impulses of the Bush Administration: a less militant progressivism at home (prescription drug benefits and No Child Left Behind, not Obamacare and Common Core) with a more militant progressivism abroad (democratizing Iraq and Afghanistan, not rooting for democracy in Syria or Ukraine).
To these folks, such a governing agenda represents a workable conservative alternative because it holds out hope to the American people that progress is just one comparatively sober candidate, one less intrusive policy, one more serious intervention, or one utopian adjustment with teeth away. This so-fancied publicly-acceptable variant of American conservatism is considered astute because it promises a more realistic means to the publics assumed-to-be progressive ends.
And on a personal level, this brand of conservatism is attractive to Progressive alter-egos in that it allows them to remain on the Right side of history and the right side of the political spectrum at the same time. This dual membership has its privileges, since the growth of the post-WWII military-social-industrial-finance-academic complex promises that the surest way to pay off a thirty-year mortgage in a DC-area zip code is to work in a sector of the economy more crony than strictly public or private.
The problem more recently, for those who know better, is that its been difficult if not impossible to achieve a conservative-libertarian consensus in this political environment. But thats changing as the growth of an oppressive state, and the growth of collateral political inequality between insiders and outsiders and rulers and ruled, has made it easier to define whats wrong with American politics. Consider three excellent speeches from this past weeks CPAC convention that give us reason to hope that limited government advocates can reclaim the moral high ground of American politics.
Perhaps the fundamental disputes between todays progressives and their conservative/libertarian critics, then, is the locus of danger to the freedom and prosperity of the American people. In President Obamas analysis, the governments job is to intervene to correct the oppression and inequality imposed by market-based power players, who use their outsized share of economic means to artificially increase the ratio between their own wealth and that of lower and middle class Americans.
Conservatives and libertarians, as demonstrated above, offer two lines of rebuttal. First, they see the results of free exchange as presumptively just and therefore do not assume that differences in wealth (even great differences) are necessarily the consequence of private oppression. Second, they recognize that the power of even the most wealthy individual or corporation is as nothing compared to the power of the government equipped to redistribute that wealth.
When Alexander Hamilton addressed the federal governments power of taxation in Federalist 35, he did so with just such a concern in mind. Opponents of the Constitution were arguing that the national governments taxing power should be restricted to only a few specified objects, like tariffs on trade. Hamilton countered by arguing that such restrictions would, ironically, increase the governments power to bring about the twin evils of oppression and unmerited inequality.
A narrowly-defined taxing power would require the government to tax a few objects heavily, turning commerce out of its natural channel and creating artificial winners and losers: winnersall those whose goods were untaxable; losersall those whose werent.
But the trouble wouldnt end there. Within the class of losers, there would be a factious competition to raise the tax rate, say, on tea and lower it on tobacco. All might have to bear a burden, but not equally so, making politics a scramble to unload some of my burden onto you. In such a case, it would be obvious to all that the government had the power to make or break the fortunes of many, and the most conscientious businessman would have no choice but to make sure his lobbyist was as well-connected and persuasive as the next.
As is so often the case in The Federalist, Hamiltons solution to this problema general federal power to taxis not really a solution. That is to say, it provides no guarantee, in this case, that the government wont use the taxing power to oppress or create artificial inequalities. All it does (and all that can be done) is make it possible for the government to avoid these twin evils and tax in the least burdensome wayif it has the will.
Generating such a will, of course, is our challenge today. To the always-present problem of human selfishness, Progressivism adds an attractive moral justification for redistributive taxation, whether through unequal income tax rates or special tax benefits for those engaged in socially-correct enterprises (like building electric cars).
What we need is a set of leaders who dont want to beat Progressives at their own gameto promise better rewards to more powerful (numerous) friends and more satisfying punishments to more isolated enemies. Let them be satisfied with lifting burdens, not reassigning them.
Theyll also need to argue in the spirit of Hamilton, demonstrating that our moral duty and our personal interest are one. We would be glad if large numbers of Americans were to decide suddenly that they want no part in factious redistributive politics for the simple reason its wrong, but it would be wise for us to take, as Madison often put it, auxiliary precautions.
In President Obamas second term, Americans have begun to see, in very obvious, obnoxious, and personal ways, the true bigness of big government. The three horsemen of last years political apocalypse the IRS, the NSA, and the HHShave discredited government as the slayer of (bossy?) bullies and suggested it might be the biggest bully on the block.
These discrete experiences offer an opening for the type of argument leaders like Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, and Rick Perry made at CPAC. Their successand oursin rolling back government oppression will depend on our ability to show that these are no exceptions to the rule, but rather the natural consequence of pursuing artificial equality, putting the livelihood and independence of all Americans at risk.
David Corbin is a Professor of Politics and Matthew Parks an Assistant Professor of Politics at The Kings College, New York City. They are co-authors of Keeping Our Republic: Principles for a Political Reformation (2011). You can follow their work onTwitterorFacebook.
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