So many bad political ideas, so many novel and ingenious expansions of government power, seem to originate with people who are on the political right and supposed to favor small government.
Take Charles Murray, who I used to hear cited all the time—this was years ago, before the “Bell Curve” controversy—as a critic of the pathologies of the welfare state. These days, I hear about him most frequently (that is, when he isn’t being shouted down by campus fascists) when he is cited by people on the Left as an advocate of the universal basic income, a scheme for giving everyone a monthly check to maintain a lower-middle-class lifestyle without having to do anything at all. In other words, welfare writ large.
I know the so-called “libertarian” argument Murray made for the basic income. Giving money only under specific programs targeted for specific needs under carefully tailored rules—public housing, food stamps, etc.—creates a lot of bureaucracy, a lot of loopholes to be exploited by the unscrupulous, and a lot of perverse incentives of the kind Murray has previously documented. Wouldn’t it be simpler, cheaper, and more effective just to hand everyone money and let them decide for themselves how best to spend it?
I’ve critiqued that idea elsewhere, but what I find interesting about it is that for all these years, Murray wasn’t really an opponent of big government or the welfare state. He was just looking for a more effective way to administer it. So his legacy as a critic of welfare is in danger of being eclipsed by his advocacy for universal welfare.
You could make similar observations about how it was the Heritage Foundation that cooked up the “individual mandate” at the center of Obamacare, how “cap-and-trade” global warming regulations were dreamed up under the Reagan administration and pushed as a “free-market” solution, and how it was Milton Friedman who helped develop income-tax withholding.
It raises the question: how did we get so many statist ideas from people who were otherwise advocates of smaller government?
This Brings Me to Megan McArdle
A recent example from Megan McArdle sheds some light on what’s happening. It turns out the problem isn’t the socialism in our economics. It’s the socialism inside our heads—the unexamined collectivist assumptions that keep pushing us toward a giant, overbearing government in spite of ourselves.
I am a fan of McArdle, who often makes interesting and trenchant observations, such as the one she starts with in this article: that the debate over the estate tax is intensified out of all proportion to its importance in the federal budget and the national economy. Few people pay it, and it doesn’t contribute much to federal tax revenues. She’s right that there are deeper moral and emotional factors that actually drive the debate.
But then she produces this analysis of the moral issues involved:
In fact, there are reasons to keep the estate tax around. Let’s start with some basic moral observations: Once you are dead, you no longer have a voting interest in what goes on in society. Thus, your interest in how your assets get disposed of after you’re no longer using them is minimal. While you’re alive, I’ll defend your property rights vigorously. Once you have died, however, you lose my support.
Now I’ll add another proposition: Society does not have an interest in your desire to ensure that your children are better off than other children. I understand that you have a great interest in this matter. I applaud the tireless work you put in to this end. But society’s job is all children, not specific children who are lucky enough to have hit the genetic lottery. And its aim should be for a society of equal opportunity to succeed and get rich. So once you’ve died, and no longer have property rights society needs to protect, there’s no particular moral precept that points toward helping your children inherit. On a moral level, I’d be perfectly comfortable with a 100 percent tax on anything you haven’t passed on before your death.
What started out as a moderate call for common ground on this issue turns into a complete capitulation to the principles and outlook of the Left. The assumption here is that “society,” not the individual, is the ultimate standard of moral value. The interests of society are supreme and everything the individual has—including the products of a lifetime of effort, and all the hopes you have for your children—can be sacrificed to it.
To make that clear, let’s try looking at this from a purely individualist perspective, in which there is no such thing as the collective interests of society, just an individual who has worked his whole life to create wealth on the assumption that he will get to decide what happens to it, and looks to government to protect that right.
Looking at this from the perspective of the individual is the only thing that actually makes sense, because there is no such collective entity as “society.” There are only individuals. Government can only protect our persons and property individually, one at a time, and if it takes money from one person, the benefits don’t go to “society” as a collective entity. They go to other individuals. Those individuals are usually located within the environs of Washington DC—quite often on K Street—which is one of the reasons the federal government collects and spends more money now than ever before, yet doesn’t seem to be making any progress on all of that lofty rhetoric about the greater good of “society.”
The unexamined issue here is collectivism, the idea that humans as a collective takes precedence over humans as individuals. Note how deeply that assumption is woven into McArdle’s analysis. Your property rights evaporate on your death because you “no longer have a voting interest in what goes on in society,” as if your contribution to society as a voter is the only thing that gives value to your opinions and validity to your rights.
I doubt McArdle would support those assumptions if stated so baldly, in such a pure and extreme form. But many people who are generally skeptical of big government have collectivist assumptions wound deeply throughout their worldview.
Society Is Another Word for Other People
Socialism has a specific meaning as an economic system, hinging on public ownership or control of wealth and capital. But it also has a wider moral and metaphysical basis: it stands for the supremacy of “society,” of human beings as an undifferentiated collective, over the rights and life of the individual. That’s the socialist premise that has taken residence in a lot of people’s heads, even people who would be considered staunchly on the Right. To the extent they agree to think about “society” instead of individuals, to the extent they cede moral authority to the “interests of society,” not as a mere aggregate of the interests and rights of individuals, but as something that supersedes those rights, they have allowed a little dominion of socialism over their thinking.
Now we can return to McArdle’s question about why the Left is so determined to keep the estate tax, although it currently raises very little revenue. They want to keep it because they hope someday to expand it, the way they have expanded every other power of government, with the goal of totally expropriating the wealth of every person upon his or her death. They fight to keep the tax in place, even at a small level, in order to preserve the principle of the tax, the principle that everyone’s wealth ultimately belongs to society and therefore can be seized by the state. That’s a principle with much wider application than the estate tax, so you can see why they invest a seemingly small thing with such importance.
But what they’re trying to preserve is not just a form of taxation. They’re trying to preserve that territory they own in your head, the part that says the collective is supreme over the individual and has the ultimate power to dispose of you and your effort. That’s the socialism in your head, and it’s the weapon they have always used to do disarm, undercut, and co-opt the critics of government control.
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