by Bruce Thornton
The election postmortem has identified all manner of causes for the Republicans’ defeat, from the “woman problem” and the “Hispanic problem,” as Peggy Noonan put it, to Romney’s fatcat persona and his inept campaign. But there’s a simpler reason, one consistent with the critics of democracy starting in ancient Athens — Obama and the Democrats promised voters more free stuff.
The differences between the political mechanisms of ancient Athens and those of America today do not erase the similarities of mentality and sensibility popular rule creates in its citizens. Most important is the way democracy leads to radical egalitarianism: the belief, as Aristotle put it, “that those who are equal in any respect are equal in all respects; because men are equally free, they claim to be absolutely equal.” Because citizens are equal in their possession of political rights and some level of access to the machinery of the state, they then desire to be equal in every way. Yet everyday experience shows that there exist real differences of talent, ability, beauty, brains, hard work, and sheer luck among people, and these differences account for their varying levels of economic and social success. Hence the desire to use the coercive power of the state to level these differences, especially through the appropriation and redistribution of wealth through government distributed entitlements. The right to equality of opportunity then becomes the right to equality of result, with the power of the state as the instrument of achieving that utopian goal, usually at the expense of freedom.
Traditionally democracies have been faulted precisely for this tendency to use the power of the state to redistribute wealth and so erase the most glaring difference among citizens, that between the rich and the poor. Such policies are also attractive because they serve the shortsighted, personal material interests of the citizens, often at the expense of the state as a whole. As Thucydides’ recreations of debates in the Athenian Assembly during the Peloponnesian War show, decisions of life and death, like the disastrous invasion of Sicily in 415 BC, were often the result of a selfish calculus of how the individual voting citizen would personally benefit, no matter how dangerous to the future wellbeing of the state such decisions might be. During the 4th century BC, Athenian citizens could expect even more state pay almost every day of the year. They were paid to serve on juries, attend Assembly meetings, go to the theater, and participate in religious festivals. Even when the threat of Philip II’s aggression against Athens became clear, it was dangerous for any politician to propose transferring money from the fund for paying theater and festival attendance to the military fund. By the time Athenians had realized the danger of Philip’s power, it was too late. The Athenians lost the battle of Chaeronea in 338 BC, and with it their political freedom and autonomy.
For ambitious politicians, moreover, taking money from some citizens to give it to others was a way to further their careers. Demagogues and would-be tyrants aggrandized power explicitly by promising the masses that they would take from the “rich” and give to the poor. They typically preyed on the class envy and resentment of the latter, as the 4th-century BC orator Isocrates wrote: “Wherefore these men [demagogues] would be most happy to see all of our citizens reduced to the condition of helplessness in which they themselves are powerful. And the greatest proof of this is that they do not consider by what means they may provide a livelihood for those who are in need, but rather how they may reduce those who are thought to possess some wealth to the level of those who are in poverty.” Or as Obama might put it, “spread the wealth around.”
The 2nd-century BC historian Polybius famously described the threat to freedom and order that results from an ambitious politician exploiting the selfish interests of the people by promising them the wealth of others: “For the mob,” Polybius writes, “habituated to feed at the expense of others, and to have its hopes of a livelihood in the property of its neighbors, as soon as it has got a leader sufficiently ambitious and daring, being excluded by poverty from the sweets of civil honors, produces a reign of mere violence.” Today, violent revolution is unlikely, not least because it is unnecessary. The expansionary federal government and its hoards of bureaucratic minions have replaced the ruthless tyrants of antiquity, creating the “soft despotism” de Tocqueville warned against. This entitlement leviathan increases its power and reach by giving more and more benefits and services to more and more people, all funded by expropriation of wealth from the productive.
Moreover, modern free-market capitalism and its dynamic of competition have sharpened the differences between “rich” and “poor,” even though by any historical measure those we call “poor” today would have been considered more than comfortable in the past. Yet these disparities of wealth are even more painful for today’s democratic egalitarians, who chafe at what they see as unfair inequality. Hence the appeal of dirigiste or socialistic economic policies, which promise to erase a humiliating “income inequality” and provide the wealth citizens can’t obtain for themselves but that they envy and resent when possessed by others. In addition, as Jean François Revel points out, the suspicion of free-market economies and the lingering affection for socialism “relate to warding off two fears that are present in each of us: the fear of competition and the fear of responsibility. These feelings are not just vague apprehensions; they are dominating anxieties. Membership in a redistributive economy allays these fears and reduces stress. The statist machine promises the psychological comfort of not having to bear the burdens of responsibility for oneself.” Redistribution of wealth, then, provides both material and psychological benefits.
This summary of democracy’s dysfunctions is relevant as well to the decades of our wanton entitlement spending that has accelerated during the last four years. In 2010, government at all levels transferred more than $2.2 trillion in money, goods and services to recipients. Since the 1960s, the government has spent nearly $20 trillion on the War on Poverty. The federal government now runs about 80 programs providing aid to the poor, and government at all levels spends nearly $1 trillion annually to fight poverty. Food stamp spending has doubled during Obama’s first term, reaching $75.7 billion for the fiscal year ending 30 September 2011. From 2007 to 2011, spending on unemployment has nearly quadrupled to $120 billion. And don’t forget the ongoing costs of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, which in fiscal year 2011 ate up 43% of the federal budget at a cost of $1.56 trillion. On top of these already existing entitlement programs, Obama spent nearly $1 trillion on a stimulus package that benefitted political clients like state government workers, and another $25 billion on the auto bailout that mostly rewarded yet another political client, the UAW. As for Obamacare, the CBO calculates it will cost about $2 trillion over ten years, and still leave 30 million people without healthcare. As a result of Obama’s increases in these wealth transfers, federal spending has now reached 24% of GDP.
To pay for all this largesse, the federal leviathan borrows money, as Obama has done to the tune of over $5 trillion. But it also redistributes income through the most progressive tax system among advanced economies. In 2009, the bottom 20% of taxpayers earned approximately 5% of the nation’s income but paid just 0.3 percent of all federal taxes. Households in the middle 20%, which earned almost 14.7% of national income, paid only 9.4% of federal taxes. Americans in the top 20%, earned 51% of the nation’s income, but paid 67.9% of all federal taxes. As for the evil 1%, they earned 13.4% of all income and paid 28.9% of all federal taxes. As a result, nearly half of all taxpayers contribute next to nothing to the costs of funding the government’s entitlements.
Another way to see how the tax system redistributes wealth, consider how much each group receives in federal spending compared to how much they pay. According to the Tax Foundation, households in the lowest 20% of income received roughly $8.21 in federal, state and local government spending for every dollar of taxes paid in 2004, households in the middle 20% received $1.30, and households in the top 20% received $0.41. In other words, tax payments exceeded government spending for the top 40%, meaning there was a net fiscal transfer of between $1.031 trillion and $1.527 trillion from one group of taxpayers to another. If this isn’t income redistribution from the “rich” to the “poor,” nothing is.
But like an ancient demagogue haranguing the Athenian Assembly, during the campaign Obama demonized Mitt Romney as the heartless tool of the rich who cared nothing for ordinary Americans, a plutocrat itching to cut programs for the poor, sick, and disabled, and shutter factories to send jobs to China, all so he could cut taxes and increase profits for the “millionaires and billionaires.” And Obama promised even more government booty, now disguised as “investments” to be paid for by appropriating even more money from those same greedy plutocrats. It was class-warfare at its nastiest, and it worked. Indeed, according to Jay Cost, it worked with the “lower-to-middle class, socially conservative whites” almost 10 million of whom, Cost calculates, stayed home because Obama had turned Romney into a super-rich “other” alien to the experience of the struggling masses.
Of course, people voted for reasons other than economic self-interest and the promise of more benefits to come. But thousands of attack ads turning Romney into the Grinch who wanted to steal the perpetual Christmas of entitlements paid for with other people’s money, along with the promise to make the “millionaires and billionaires” pay their “fair share,” were enough to make millions of voters ignore Obama’s manifest economic malfeasance, even as fiscal disaster looms ever closer. The ancient critics of Athenian democracy wouldn’t be surprised.
©2012 Bruce S. Thornton