Nothing New Under the Sun

by Victor Davis Hanson

PJ Media

The Same Old Equality of Result

Rather than nitpick about Obama’s envisioned brave new world, I think it wiser to see it in the larger context of age-old divides over the nature of Western democratic and liberal society. Nothing that we have seen proposed since January 20 is novel; everything is merely the promise of the past outfitted with a new snazzier veneer of hope and change.

Take his domestic policies. What overarching philosophy seems reflected in raising taxes, borrowing trillions to spend trillions more on new entitlements, creating a new health care bureaucracy, cap-and-trade, allotting trillions more for education, and the expectation of the appointment of more liberal judges?

It’s old…

In a word, it is adherence to the idea of equality of result rather than an equality of opportunity, the age-old debate that goes back to the Greeks. From Aristotle’s Politics and Plato Laws, we learn of the original dilemma: a stable city-state of roughly similar property owners, who vote as equals, and fight as comrades in the phalanx, tragically, but inevitably, soon becomes tragically unequal.

Divide the land up equally to found the polis; give everyone an similarly-size plot (klêros); and then health, luck, brains, accident, strength, ambition, character, and a myriad of other factors, some understandable, some capricious, conspire to create inequality. I agree with Aristotle; I have seen it with families and communities in which equal inheritances soon led to radically different outcomes, as one sibling on rocky ground thrives, while another in deep loam starves; one town with abundant resources goes broke, while another without natural advantages thrives.
As Aristotle saw, some lose, some expand their original homesteads, and suddenly we have Hoi beltistoi and Hoi polloi — and the rallying cry that someone’s liberty to do as he pleases means that egalitarianism of the lowest common denominator becomes impossible.

American vs. French

The notion of freedom then butts up against equality, as if they are as often antithetical as symbiotic. (N.B.: note the French Revolutionary sloganeering of “fraternity” and “egalitarianism” versus the American Revolutionary emphasis on “Give me liberty, or give me death”, “Don’t Tread on Me!”, “All men are created equal” [by opportunity rather than by result]. And note Obama’s references to the French ideal.)

In response, the state has two choices to preserve its original ideal of equality (and we see elements of this further debate voiced in the Old Oligarch, Aristotle, Plato, Hobbes, Hume, etc, as well as in histories of the middle and late Roman Republic).

The Therapeutic

1. The state and culture at large can be coercive to ensure an equality of result — in the modern liberal world by high redistributive taxes, generous means-tested entitlements, inflationary monetary policies to diminish the power of capital (in the ancient world by forbidding the alienability of land, mandating the maximum size of estates, coining cheap bronze/silver coated money in vast amounts, redistribution of property, cancellation of debt, etc.).

Such efforts at commonality are what we are now witnessing with income tax hikes, $1.7 trillion dollar deficits, inflationary federal spending and borrowing, along with huge new entitlements. Its extreme form is the European Union, its extreme, extreme manifestations are the failed -isms and -ologies of the bloody 20th century where authoritarian elites broke the requisite eggs for the omelet of “for the people” and in service to “equality.”

The Tragic

2. Or instead of the therapeutic mode, we get the tragic acceptance of innate inequality combined with the notion of personal responsibility to care for one’s fellow citizen.

That is, in the American version of equality of opportunity, we accept some will always end up poor, some rich, some in-between due to factors both in, and beyond, our control. But rather than sacrifice liberty to use the coercive powers of the state to enforce equality, we set a foundation at the bottom, a safety net to ensure a minimum level of support for the poor, and laws at the top to prevent buccaneering and piratical behavior — in theory.

Then the tragic view accepts that some will be very wealthy, but assumes that the race for individual riches will, first, create greater prosperity for society at large (the much caricatured “trickle down”). And, two, a host of private mechanisms exists to channel individual bounty back for the general welfare: the status; and/or sense of right of giving to non-profits, charities, etc; the shame of living it up to an excessive degree; the patriotic call upon one to invest their riches in the public good; the informal practice of lending and giving to family and friends, etc. In other words, millions risk dying to leave temperate, naturally rich equality of result Mexico to enter the once equality of opportunity United States.

Been There, Done That

It seems to me that on three occasions during the last seventy-five years we have someone who really did believe in the therapeutic, equality of result — FDR, LBJ, and Jimmy Carter (Truman, JFK and Clinton proved to be centrists in comparison).
FDR had the rhetorical gifts and personal genius to implement such an agenda; LBJ and Carter tried, but were inept and poor messengers. And now we have a fourth avatar, who, given the current alignment of the planets, has a real chance to complete the FDR mandate — not in the dark days of the Great Depression replete with real want and starvation, but in a recession during the greatest age of affluence in the history of civilization — making both success and failure obsolete, and turning us into a sort of egalitarian polis much like Sweden or France.

I Don’t Owe You Any More

Turn on the radio: ads blare out how to renounce mortgage debt; get out of maxed out credit-cards; short the IRS; be eligible for a subsidized government loan, or new entitlement. Other ‘buy gold’ ads warn: plenty of danger, but no money in passbook accounts, stocks, real estate, as the debtor gains on the creditor, and capital earns little in comparison to protected salaries. To match a $100,000 government salary (as an upper-level bureaucrat), the despised capitalist, at a 2% interest payout on his stash, would need $5 million in accumulated cash: advantage bureaucrat.

Ironies Galore

Obama rather brilliantly counts on two great constituencies (other than the professional Ivy League technocracy whose responsibility is to figure out how to borrow and tax the money, lavish it on constituencies, and do rather well themselves as government overseers). One is the hyper-rich, the Kerrys, the Soroses, the Gateses, and their appendages in universities, government, foundations, and the media. These power players either make enough to be unconcerned with high taxation, or are so well connected politically (cf. the machinations of a Daschle, Dodd, Geithner, Rangel) that the coercive state rules simply do not apply.

Instead the hyper-wealthy receive a sort of psychic gratification in helping the ‘poor’, and romanticizing the underprivileged, thereby alleviating the guilt of being blessed, and at relatively small cost — and so they quite enthusiastically support the equality of result state.

Again, the poor present no challenge, offer no threat to the hyper — wealthy, but are thankful client recipients of ensured government largess. In contrast, the fellow elites have the necessary taste and education to satisfy the demands of aristocratic society.

And The Upper Middle Class?

But those in between, and especially those of the upper-middle class — the hardware store owner, the dentist, the paving contractor, the successful restaurateur, the real estate agent? These grasping who wish and aspire and may reach a mythical $250,000 salary some day (again, the threshold where one becomes the hated “they”), well now, they are not poor, need no government or private help, and offer no psychological alleviation of guilt to the elite. Romanticize a gardener or farm worker, or even clerk or teacher, but how does one mythologize a successful optometrist or insurance agent?

And yet they are not usually sophisticated in the snobbish sense, not opera-goers, not familiar with museums, not symphony buffs. Their children don’t necessarily attend Stanford or Harvard. In other words, they are near-to-wells, wannabes, without requisite culture, deserving of neither cultural awe and acceptance nor noblesse oblige.

A leftist elitist would always prefer the dubious (and now upscale, tax avoiding) huckster Al Sharpton, Tawana Brawley and all, to Sarah Palin, former mayor of Wasilla and Idaho University graduate. Joe the Plumber, the Cuban upper-middle class of Miami, the local talk show host, anyone who wants to get ahead, but shows so visibly the scars of the struggle to do so, lacks the refinement and taste of the more affluent, yet is in the crosshairs of the Obama revolution.

The only impediment to our new polis? There are not simply enough of these entrepreneurial dinosaurs to pay the taxes to feed the new $3.6 trillion annual beast. One can take all the income of the $250,000 “them”, and there won’t be enough to pay down the $9 trillion in new debt.

In short, Bush = lower taxes, more spending, and more debt; Clinton = higher taxes, more spending, and less debt; Obama = more taxes, more spending, and a lot more debt — and the same old dream that we can make everyone equal in the end — or else!

©2009 Victor Davis Hanson

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