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The presidency of Barack Obama has established once and for all that modern liberalism is now the stupid party. Very little of liberal thought these days represents anything fresh or new, but rather comprises what Lionel Trilling once reduced conservatism to: “irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.” Now it is liberal ideas that young in the 19th century today stumble around like zombies in the liberal mind, mindlessly repeating hoary clichés of the sort Jonah Goldberg documents in his new book.
Obama’s presidency and reelection campaign have already produced an abundance of examples. Take the looming fiscal crisis of unfunded social welfare entitlements, run-away federal spending, and accelerating debt and deficits. Even with the monitory example of a rapidly disintegrating Europe before our eyes, the Democrats still can’t do the math. The “Buffett rule” taxes on the “rich” that the president has been touting amount to the equivalent of couch-cushion change compared to our debt and unfunded liabilities. Indeed, confiscating outright all the wealth of the richest 400 Americans would barely cover one year of Obama deficits. The economic history of the past half-century backs up the math: only by reducing spending can we get our fiscal house in order, and raising taxes on the productive stifles economic growth and reduces tax revenues, thus hastening the downward spiral. The fundamental wisdom known by every village explainer––spend more than you earn and you’ll go broke, give people something for nothing and they will expect something for nothing forever, there is no free lunch, if something can’t go on forever it won’t––doesn’t seem to penetrate the minds of the self-styled “genius” party.
Yet despite this crisis, all the liberals can do is recycle old class-warfare bromides. Repeating the juvenile slogans of the Occupy Wall Street movement, the Democrats decry the “1%” and the President shrieks about the rich “paying their fair share.” The fact that among advanced economies the U.S. already has the most progressive income taxes and the highest corporate taxes––even as nearly half of taxpayers pay nothing while an equal number receive some sort of government largesse––can’t penetrate the fog of clichés befuddling the liberal brain. No, stale Hollywood scripts about “Wall Street” pirates and evil oil corporations are recycled into government policy, and jeremiads against “greed” and “materialism” abound. The President even invokes Jesus Christ in support of his redistributionist schemes, his liberal supporters conveniently forgoing their usual hysteria about the theocratic camel’s nose poking into the political tent.
Nothing in any of this has anything to do with the reality of our economic sickness or its cures. Worse yet, we’ve heard it all before over a century ago. In the late 19th century, increasing immigration from Russia, Poland, southern Italy, and other non-Teutonic countries, along with the growing wealth, social mobility, and economic opportunity created by industrial capitalism, agitated the well-born and well-educated elites worried about racial “degeneration” and the weakening of the American order. Impressed by Karl Marx, they saw industrial capitalism and corporations, and the increasing materialism, amoral greed, civic corruption, and crass competition these fostered, as the force that would destroy the American moral order and empower the lesser breeds who thought of nothing but greed and selfish gain, no matter the future costs to society. The reformers’ answer was to turn over government rule to a “natural aristocracy” created by breeding and education, the denizens of the “best class” who could restore order to a disintegrating society and rein in the “incorporated power and greed,” as Brooks Adams put it, of “robber barons” like the Rockefellers and Morgans and the other “malefactors of great wealth” criticized by T.R. Roosevelt.
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