Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
Behind the stark melodrama of our political conflicts lies the progressive consensus: The collective use of power to pursue various policy aims depends on technical knowledge and science. But this view itself depends on certain contestable modern ideas about human nature and behavior that are matters not of science, but of ideas found in philosophical speculation. Policy–the aims collectively we should pursue and how–reflects ideas, not technical knowledge. And all ideas, good or bad, assume some vision of what humans are and what they should do as members of a political community.
The philosophical roots of different policies, then, account for their conflicts with other policies, which cannot be adjudicated by science. Yet for over a century, progressives have fancied themselves the heirs of scientific advances that have rendered the wisdom of tradition and faith obsolete. Democrats believe they are the “brights,” the sophisticated thinkers free of irrational beliefs and the subjection to outmoded traditions that characterize conservatives.
Barack Obama, for example, entered office vowing to “restore science to its rightful place,” implying that his predecessor just “made stuff up,” a phrase he used recently in South Africa in a subtle dig at Donald Trump. Our partisan disputes over policy reflect this unearned assumption of certainty on the part of the left, and explains their passionate hatred of those who oppose them. To progressives, such people are irredeemable flat-earthers resisting the progress of knowledge in order to serve evil ends like defending their racist and sexist “privilege.”
Yet on the level of ideas that reflect notions of human nature, the self-styled “brights” on the left are often the slaves of some defunct intellectual or outdated received wisdom, not the sober, rational followers of scientific facts. And those bad ideas lead to bad policies
Take the perennial progressive “crisis” of income inequality. Much of what progressives mean by “social justice” comprises eliminating gaps between wealthier Americans and everybody else. Any disparities represent the injustices of capitalism and the tax system designed to benefit the rich. Statistics are marshalled that prove this disparity and give this ideological trope a veneer of science. For example, today the richest 0.1% owns 19% of the nation’s wealth, three times as much as in the 1970s. To correct this “injustice,” the Democrats’ “Green New Deal” proposes a 70% tax rate on income over $10 million. Other proposals include Bernie Sanders’ to reduce the personal estate-tax exemption from $11.4 million to $3.5, along with other changes such as taxing capital gains as ordinary income. Elizabeth Warren has called for a “wealth tax,” 2% on those with a net worth over $50 million, and 3% on assets over $1 billion.
These tax-policy proposals are just the latest examples of the usual Democrat mantra of “making the rich pay their fair share.” Critics have copious evidence from past history that these schemes will not achieve their aim of equalizing incomes. Since Warren G. Harding, reducing the marginal tax rate on income produces more revenue, while increasing it reduces revenue and harms economic growth. America’s tax system, moreover, is already one of the most progressive of the advanced economies. As the Wall Street Journal writes, “In 2018, the top 0.1% of earners got 7.7% of all pretax income, but they paid 13.3% of all income taxes, according to the Tax Policy Center. The bottom 60% of households got 26.7% of pretax income and paid 14% of taxes.” And as European economies demonstrate, if you want more revenue, you have to tax the middle class, where the bulk of the money is. This means regressive taxes like the Value Added Tax that hits the poor and working class.
But for progressives this policy of soaking the rich is not one born of empirical evidence or even mathematics. Indeed, the facts undermine these policy prescriptions. For one thing, the rich simply don’t have enough money to pay for all the left’s utopian aims. Even if the government confiscated the $2.4 trillion of America’s 540 billionaires, the amount would cover a bit less than half of this year’s $4.4 trillion budget. Confiscating the total worth of the Fortune 500 companies, $22 trillion, would barely cover the $22 trillion (and still climbing by the minute) of U.S. debt. The data used for decrying income inequality are also misleading: they leave out the value of government transfers to individuals, for example, and look at a single year rather than tracking incomes over time, which would show people moving in and out of the upper quintiles of wealth; from 1982 to 2012, 90% of the Americans on the Forbes 400 wealthiest list had fallen off.
This failure to recognize capitalism’s dynamism and its power to create more wealth is a constant mistake made by its critics. It is astonishing to hear Eileen Appelbaum of the Center for Economic and Policy Research say, “It’s just become so obvious and clear that if the wealthy can suck so much out of the economy, there’s just not so much left for everybody else.” This reflects a medieval view of wealth as fixed, like land and precious metals, rather than recognizing capitalism’s ability to create new wealth and distribute it more widely. That’s why between 1990 and 2017, global GDP rose from $23.4 trillion to $80.1 trillion, and a billion people escaped poverty. It’s also why Americans who aren’t rich and are the presumed victims of income inequality live a material existence superior to that of the King of Spain in the 16th century.
Despite all their technocratic pretensions, the progressives’ policy proposals are not about empirical evidence and mathematics. Fixing “income inequality” is about an idea, one as ancient as Athenian democracy, and still at the heart of every collectivist political philosophy: radical egalitarianism. This is the notion, as Aristotle defined 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.”
Disparities in wealth, visible to all, are thus particularly insulting to free democratic citizens. Indeed, in his discussion of factions and their dangers, James Madison identified “the various and unequal distribution of property” as the “most common and durable source of factions,” and “those who hold, and those who are without property, have ever formed distinct interests in society.” The radical solution to this conflict, as we see clearly in the Green New Deal, is the greater confiscation of wealth through punitive tax rates, and the wider distribution of revenue to those with less––a policy that has been tried and failed numerous times.
Dig even deeper, and we find questionable beliefs about human nature as the foundation of these bad ideas. The central doctrine of the left is determinism: humans are what they are because of biological, social, or economic determinism, material forces that distort their otherwise benign nature. Dysfunctional behaviors once believed to result from bad character, a lack of virtue, and destructive choices now find their causes in the environment. If some people have less than others, it’s because of unjust social and economic institutions. Remove such impediments, and the bulk of people would end up roughly equal.
This idea doesn’t come from empirical observation of humans over time. What experience shows is that industry, virtue, talent, character, and sheer luck are not equally distributed. Moreover, determinism ignores the reality of free will, the unpredictable, often mysterious power of humans to choose their actions, including ones destructive to themselves and others. Ignoring all these permanent characteristics of human nature leaves only a crude quantitative equality that as Plato explained is unjust because it ignores qualitative differences. Justice means matching rewards to virtues and character, and giving less to those lacking them. This is certainly the standard that our radical egalitarians acknowledge when it comes to professional sports or entertainment, or to advancement in their own careers.
Finally, 2500 years of observation of human behavior provides ample empirical evidence that given a flawed, free human nature, radical egalitarianism is doomed to fail. That’s why all attempts to institute egalitarianism in a culture end up requiring brutal violence to even out the disparities of talents and abilities in order to create the equality of misery, as we see in the horrors of Russia’s Bolsheviks, China’s Cultural Revolution or Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge atrocities.
Modern conservatism in the postwar period has tried to return political debate to these foundational principles and ideas, but increasingly has been handicapped by the progressives’ success in instituting big government redistributive programs justified in part by notions of egalitarianism, economic determinism, and class resentment. Conservatives have had to accept the permanence of FDR’s New Deal and LBJ’s Great Society programs, often themselves expanding programs and benefits. This accommodation to progressivism explains its continuing power and resilience. It exploits the universal human desire to get something for nothing and avoid accountability for freely chosen actions and behaviors. And it promises to do away with the iron law of humanity’s tragic existence, the reality that failure and suffering are non-negotiable constituents of who we are.
And that’s why politicians usually pay a political price for bringing up voter responsibility for many of our problems. Remember how Mitt Romney was savaged for his comment in 2012, made privately but leaked to the media, about the 47% of “takers” who comprise a natural constituency for redistributionist Democrats? This statement of obvious fact merely reinforced the Democrats’ caricature of him as a heartless capitalist indifferent to the sufferings caused by an unjust economic system. Such distortions are clichés that turn up in every election, unleashed against even those Republicans, like George W. Bush, whose “compassionate conservatism” accepted many of the premises of progressive ideology.
For all our rote calls for sober and judicious discussion of the issues, and for basing our political decisions on rational analyses, this state of affairs will continue. The ideas that lie behind policy are passionately held, akin to religious beliefs in this increasingly secularized world. And people always will look out for their own interests. The Founders understood these realities of human nature, and so crafted a government that balanced them one against the other, rather than trying to make something straight from the crooked timber of humanity.
Their political order has held for over two hundred years. But as economist Herb Stein said, if something can’t go on forever, it won’t. Our debt, deficit, and unfunded entitlement crises––created by progressive redistributionist ideas accepted by both parties–– are relentlessly building to disaster. When that dam breaks, the Founders’ brilliant architecture, one that civil war, world wars, and depression could not ruin, will face its most dangerous test.