It seems that no one is happy with the results of the latest round of budget/debt negotiations — least of all the American people, who, according to one poll, would like to replace every member of Congress. This, of course, can’t really be the way forward. To find that, we have to reacquaint ourselves with the approach to political negotiation designed and modeled by the Founders and their most faithful successors.
A number of commentators have already begun to retrace these steps. A week ago, George Will suggested that both President Obama and the Tea Party fundamentally misunderstand our (Madisonian) system, constructed, as it is, to force concession and compromise among groups (sometimes factions) with competing interests and political visions. Neither seems willing, according to Will, to accept that “in Madisonian politics, all progress is incremental.”
The spirit of the American tradition
This understanding of the American system is certainly correct. But its application is not, at least on the Tea Party side. After all, what could be more incremental than Mike Lee’s original plan, supported vigorously by Tea Party groups, to defund (not repeal) Obamacare for a single year while funding every other part of the government at its current level–unless it was their willingness to accept simply postponing the individual mandate by a year (which, ironically, Democrats have begun to advocate in the midst of the ongoing enrollment debacle)?
An historical parallel cited in Will’s article illustrates both the prudence and urgency of Mike Lee and Ted Cruz’s efforts. The 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act opened up both territories to slavery (if desired by local residents), thirty-four years after it had been excluded by the Missouri Compromise. This law shattered the American party system of the day, precipitating the death of the (divided) Whig Party, the founding of the Republican Party (to resist and repeal it), and the relegation of the Democratic Party (its principal sponsor) to the political sidelines for most of the next eighty years. It also drew Abraham Lincoln back into the public square to fight for the heart of the American regime.
In his justly famous speech at Peoria on October 16, 1854, Lincoln painted a bright line between the toleration of slavery where it already existed and the extension of slavery into territory where it didn’t, between accepting a present evil (to avoid a worse one: civil war) and creating a new one. The first was a necessary, moral adjustment to imperfect political circumstances; the second, gratuitously immoral–a denial of the first principles of the republic.
One need not equate the injustice of slavery with the injustice of the present entitlement system to see how Lincoln’s analysis applies to the present case. Young people are already burdened with taxes and future obligations far beyond those borne by the present beneficiaries of programs like Social Security and Medicare. An immediate correction would cause great pain for current senior citizens and upset longstanding promises and obligations. But there is no excuse for adding another unjust claim upon the labor of the young by making them subsidize the health care of those older and more wealthy than they.
This is the sum of the Lee/Cruz/Tea Party position, in the best spirit of the American tradition of responsible political reform under the rule of law. It is not a starting point from which they should be expected to compromise, but the compromise itself. To ask for less would be to make them–and, more importantly, the nation–complicit in the intergenerational injustice at the heart of Obamacare. Madison’s Federalist essays consistently counsel moderation and political forbearance in republican politics, but they also have no problem calling an “improper or wicked project” what it is–all of which, in Federalist 10, involve one form or another of economic redistribution.
Benjamin Franklin famously quipped that “in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” But taxes (like deaths) come in different forms, some more onerous than others–and in an infinite variety of rates and schemes, helping some economic flowers bloom while stifling others. It is not surprising then that tax and spending compromises have been difficult to achieve from the very beginning of our republic. In Federalist 12, Alexander Hamilton takes up this discussion and suggests that a more secure Union not only would promote the commercial prosperity of the states, but would additionally make the payment of taxes easier and more just.
Hamilton notes that since “all orders of men, look forward with eager expectation and growing alacrity to the pleasing reward of their toils,” direct taxation on the people, at least in his day, was impracticable. Therefore monies would be raised through indirect taxes, like tariffs, for the foreseeable future. The problem with such taxes is that they are relatively easy to evade, thereby driving up tax rates for honest parties, and perhaps requiring a large number of armed patrols, “intolerable in a free country.”
The establishment of a “general union . . . .rendering regulations for the collection of the duties more simple and efficacious” best secures the country against these problems and measures by imitating in governmental artifice “the advantage which nature holds out to us” in our geographical unity. Federalist 13 echoes this conclusion, showing that the breakup of the union would be as costly in matters of domestic spending as it would be in terms of national security.
For Hamilton, public finance is the art of collecting (and disbursing) revenue in the way that best unleashes the natural talents of the American people–not, as the Progressives would have it, taxing and spending to redirect those talents toward Progressive ends. This means that the best system of public finance is the most economical, even-handed, simple, and transparent one that is politically possible at any given time. This may seem obvious, but many recent unforced political errors by the party that supposedly stands for small government might have been avoided had these principles been kept constantly in view. Instead, even strong conservatives, like Rep. Marlin Stutzman (R-IN), had difficulty articulating the Republican endgame: “We have to get something out of this. And I don’t know what that even is.”
Our current entitlement regime (and the tax scheme that supports it) is unsustainable economically, politically, and morally: it costs far more than we can afford, creates an intractable generational divide, and grossly violates the justice due to the young and their posterity. Those who recognize this must continue to press this case as clearly and forcefully as possible and to support the public measures best adapted to address it.
The American people, in the end, may refuse to hear or to heed the alarm. But if the Republican Party won’t sound it or rally around those who do, it may find itself as politically irrelevant as an antebellum Whig Party that couldn’t decide what it thought about slavery.
David Corbin is a Professor of Politics and Matthew Parks an Assistant Professor of Politics at The King’s College, New York City. They are co-authors of “Keeping Our Republic: Principles for a Political Reformation” (2011). You can follow their work on Twitter or Facebook.