I want to spend some time talking about . . . a dangerous and growing inequality and lack of upward mobility that has jeopardized middle-class America’s basic bargain that if you work hard, you have a chance to get ahead. I believe this is the defining challenge of our time: making sure our economy works for every working American. That’s why I ran for president. It was the center of last year’s campaign. It drives everything I do in this office.
— President Barack Obama, 12/04/13
In our last essay in this series on contemporary applications of The Federalist Papers, we argued that the case for limited government is made more difficult in our age because many American leaders, in following William James’s lead, have been successful in engaging in the “moral equivalent of war” against the Founders’ regime. President Obama has been consistently militant in pursuing a progressive domestic agenda during his presidency.
Yet too many within the beltway conservatariat have insisted that the best way to counter militant progressivism is by offering a governing agenda that combines the worst impulses of the Bush Administration: a less militant progressivism at home (prescription drug benefits and No Child Left Behind, not Obamacare and Common Core) with a more militant progressivism abroad (democratizing Iraq and Afghanistan, not rooting for democracy in Syria or Ukraine).
To these folks, such a governing agenda represents a workable conservative alternative because it holds out hope to the American people that progress is just one comparatively sober candidate, one less intrusive policy, one more serious intervention, or one utopian adjustment with teeth away. This so-fancied publicly-acceptable variant of American “conservatism” is considered astute because it promises a more realistic means to the public’s assumed-to-be progressive ends.
And on a personal level, this brand of conservatism is attractive to Progressive alter-egos in that it allows them to remain on the Right side of history and the right side of the political spectrum at the same time. This dual membership has its privileges, since the growth of the post-WWII “military-social-industrial-
The problem more recently, for those who know better, is that it’s been difficult if not impossible to achieve a conservative-libertarian consensus in this political environment. But that’s changing as the growth of an oppressive state, and the growth of collateral political inequality between insiders and outsiders and rulers and ruled, has made it easier to define what’s wrong with American politics. Consider three excellent speeches from this past week’s CPAC convention that give us reason to hope that limited government advocates can reclaim the moral high ground of American politics.
- Rand Paul – “There’s a great battle going on for the heart and soul of America. The Fourth Amendment is equally as important as the Second Amendment, and conservatives cannot forget this.” Senator Paul reminded his youthful audience that the Bill of Rights is not some fanciful prose on parchment to be memorized for AP exams but a reassertion of Declarational truth, Constitutional intention, and Federalist reasoning as to the essence of majority rule, minority rights, and equal justice for all.
- Ted Cruz – “There is a corrupt and interlocking system of lobbyists and lawyers and consultants that are sucking off Washington.” Perhaps the most hated conservative politician of the day (given that most other high IQ, well-spoken, Ivy League-credentialed young men and women eagerly assimilate), Senator Cruz highlighted that the D.C. elite is comprised of more who secure their own upward political mobility by holding politically-correct opinions, than it is a place where principled statesmen promote a tax, regulatory, and spending scheme that best enables social mobility.
- Rick Perry – “There’s the vision common in blue states, where the state plays an increasing role in the lives of its citizens. And then there’s the vision common to red state America where the freedom of the individual comes first, and the reach of government is limited.” Gov. Perry relayed with 18th century Jeffersonian confidence and 21st century public policy evidence the manifold ways in which states like Texas differ from New York and California. Simply put, “conservative governors who trust the people more than the machinery of government” encourage a governance model that best allows political communities to flourish.
Perhaps the fundamental disputes between today’s progressives and their conservative/libertarian critics, then, is the locus of danger to the freedom and prosperity of the American people. In President Obama’s analysis, the government’s job is to intervene to correct the oppression and inequality imposed by market-based power players, who use their outsized share of economic means to artificially increase the ratio between their own wealth and that of lower and middle class Americans.
Conservatives and libertarians, as demonstrated above, offer two lines of rebuttal. First, they see the results of free exchange as presumptively just and therefore do not assume that differences in wealth (even great differences) are necessarily the consequence of private oppression. Second, they recognize that the power of even the most wealthy individual or corporation is as nothing compared to the power of the government equipped to redistribute that wealth.
When Alexander Hamilton addressed the federal government’s power of taxation in Federalist 35, he did so with just such a concern in mind. Opponents of the Constitution were arguing that the national government’s taxing power should be restricted to only a few specified objects, like tariffs on trade. Hamilton countered by arguing that such restrictions would, ironically, increase the government’s power to bring about the “twin evils” of oppression and unmerited inequality.
But the trouble wouldn’t end there. Within the class of losers, there would be a factious competition to raise the tax rate, say, on tea and lower it on tobacco. All might have to bear a burden, but not equally so, making politics a scramble to unload some of my burden onto you. In such a case, it would be obvious to all that the government had the power to make or break the fortunes of many, and the most conscientious businessman would have no choice but to make sure his lobbyist was as well-connected and persuasive as the next.
As is so often the case in The Federalist, Hamilton’s solution to this problem–a general federal power to tax–is not really a solution. That is to say, it provides no guarantee, in this case, that the government won’t use the taxing power to oppress or create artificial inequalities. All it does (and all that can be done) is make it possible for the government to avoid these “twin evils” and tax in the “least burdensome” way–if it has the will.
Generating such a will, of course, is our challenge today. To the always-present problem of human selfishness, Progressivism adds an attractive moral justification for redistributive taxation, whether through unequal income tax rates or special tax benefits for those engaged in socially-correct enterprises (like building electric cars).
What we need is a set of leaders who don’t want to beat Progressives at their own game–to promise better rewards to more powerful (numerous) friends and more satisfying punishments to more isolated enemies. Let them be satisfied with lifting burdens, not reassigning them.
They’ll also need to argue in the spirit of Hamilton, demonstrating that our moral duty and our personal interest are one. We would be glad if large numbers of Americans were to decide suddenly that they want no part in factious redistributive politics for the simple reason its wrong, but it would be wise for us to take, as Madison often put it, “auxiliary precautions.”
In President Obama’s second term, Americans have begun to see, in very obvious, obnoxious, and personal ways, the true bigness of big government. The three horsemen of last year’s political apocalypse– the IRS, the NSA, and the HHS–have discredited government as the slayer of (bossy?) bullies and suggested it might be the biggest bully on the block.
These discrete experiences offer an opening for the type of argument leaders like Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, and Rick Perry made at CPAC. Their success–and ours–in rolling back government oppression will depend on our ability to show that these are no exceptions to the rule, but rather the natural consequence of pursuing artificial equality, putting the livelihood and independence of all Americans at risk.
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.