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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

The Attack On “Redistribution”

This item is cross-posted from The New Republic.
It’s becoming more obvious each day that the conservative assault on Barack Obama’s legislative agenda, including his incrementalist efforts towards universal health coverage, isn’t much about the details. It is, instead, a counter-revolutionary campaign to revive 1980s-era middle-class resentments of particular beneficiaries of government social programs. Beneath the hysterical talk about Obama’s “socialism” or the “Democrat Socialist Party,” conservatives are actually revolting against the ancient targets of the New Deal and Great Society, and indeed, against the very idea that “interference” with the distributional implications of free markets is ever morally legitimate.
Consider a long, classic column published at National Review last week by the Hoover Institution’s Victor Davis Hanson, entitled “Obama and Redistributive Change.” It’s an angry screed against the egalitarian underpinnings of progressive politics, past, present and future. It goes over-the-top in suggesting that Obama is determined to wipe out absolutely every distinction in wealth and status among Americans. But the self-righteous fury against any “redistributive” activity by government seems perfectly genuine, representing as it does a rejection of virtually every way of ordering society other than laissez-faire capitalism:

When radical leaders over the last 2,500 years have sought to enforce equality of results, their prescriptions were usually predictable: redistribution of property; cancellation of debts; incentives to bring out the vote and increase political participation among the poor; stigmatizing of the wealthy, whether through the extreme measure of ostracism or the more mundane forced liturgies; use of the court system to even the playing field by targeting the more prominent citizens; radical growth in government and government employment; the use of state employees as defenders of the egalitarian faith; bread-and-circus entitlements; inflation of the currency and greater national debt to lessen the power of accumulated capital; and radical sloganeering about reactionary enemies of the new state.

Hanson is clearly looking beyond our current political debates at much of the history of civilization, and it infuriates him. But if Obama’s health care reform efforts represent a drive to “enforce equality of results,” what existing government program can’t be described the same way?
Social Security is redistributive. Medicare is redistributive. Public education is redistributive. Public investments in highways, bridges, dams, and other infrastructure are most definitely redistributive. The land reforms that accompanied the rise of every society, dating back to feudalism, are inherently and overtly redistributive. Even defense spending is redistributive, insofar as the benefits of national security are rarely captured by current taxpayers.
Beyond government and politics, it’s not only “socialists” who have embraced “redistributive” thinking. The Hebrew lawgivers and prophets; Jesus Christ; Mohammad–all were blatant redistributionists. All denied that wealth or status was invariably the product of productivity and virtue, and rejected the idea that redistribution was theft.
If Hanson and the many conservatives who so often sound like him want to openly take the posture that much of American–not to mention, world–history is a long, disastrous saga of tyranny in the pursuit of “enforced equality,” they are free to do so. But they should at least acknowledge that the rage against Barack Obama is really just displaced rage at democracy; at the mild forms of collective social action embraced by most Americans during the last century; at the longstanding policy positions of both major political parties; and at many of the very people they are calling upon to kill Obama’s agenda–including Social Security and Medicare beneficiaries, people with government-protected mortgages, farm-price-support recipients, military veterans, and public employees tout court. At an absolute minimum, Hanson should rush to publish a column savaging Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele for trying to position the GOP as the Party of Medicare this last week.

3 comments on “The Attack On “Redistribution”

  1. Reference Librarian on

    Hanson and the so called conservatives might want to review Kurland’s and Lerner’s The Founders Constitution. They’ll find plenty of radicals to rail against. Three examples, if you don’t mind extensive quotations:
    Document 32
    Thomas Jefferson to James Madison
    28 Oct. 1785 Papers 8:681–82
    The descent of property of every kind therefore to all the children, or to all the brothers and sisters, or other relations in equal degree is a politic measure, and a practicable one. Another means of silently lessening the inequality of property is to exempt all from taxation below a certain point, and to tax the higher portions of property in geometrical progression as they rise. Whenever there is in any country, uncultivated lands and unemployed poor, it is clear that the laws of property have been so far extended as to violate natural right. The earth is given as a common stock for man to labour and live on. If, for the encouragement of industry we allow it to be appropriated, we must take care that other employment be furnished to those excluded from the appropriation. If we do not the fundamental right to labour the earth returns to the unemployed. It is too soon yet in our country to say that every man who cannot find employment but who can find uncultivated land, shall be at liberty to cultivate it, paying a moderate rent. But it is not too soon to provide by every possible means that as few as possible shall be without a little portion of land. The small landholders are the most precious part of a state.
    James Madison, Parties
    23 Jan. 1792
    Papers 14:197–98
    In every political society, parties are unavoidable. A difference of interests, real or supposed, is the most natural and fruitful source of them. The great object should be to combat the evil: 1. By establishing a political equality among all. 2. By withholding unnecessary opportunities from a few, to increase the inequality of property, by an immoderate, and especially an unmerited, accumulation of riches. 3. By the silent operation of laws, which, without violating the rights of property, reduce extreme wealth towards a state of mediocrity, and raise extreme indigence towards a state of comfort. 4. By abstaining from measures which operate differently on different interests, and particularly such as favor one interest at the expence of another. 5. By making one party a check on the other, so far as the existence of parties cannot be prevented, nor their views accommodated. If this is not the language of reason, it is that of republicanism.
    And here’s on from a real Bolshevik:
    Benjamin Franklin to Robert Morris
    25 Dec. 1783
    Writings 9:138
    The Remissness of our People in Paying Taxes is highly blameable; the Unwillingness to pay them is still more so. I see, in some Resolutions of Town Meetings, a Remonstrance against giving Congress a Power to take, as they call it, the People’s Money out of their Pockets, tho’ only to pay the Interest and Principal of Debts duly contracted. They seem to mistake the Point. Money, justly due from the People, is their Creditors’ Money, and no longer the Money of the People, who, if they withold it, should be compell’d to pay by some Law.
    All Property, indeed, except the Savage’s temporary Cabin, his Bow, his Matchcoat, and other little Acquisitions, absolutely necessary for his Subsistence, seems to me to be the Creature of public Convention. Hence the Public has the Right of Regulating Descents, and all other Conveyances of Property, and even of limiting the Quantity and the Uses of it. All the Property that is necessary to a Man, for the Conservation of the Individual and the Propagation of the Species, is his natural Right, which none can justly deprive him of: But all Property superfluous to such purposes is the Property of the Publick, who, by their Laws, have created it, and who may therefore by other Laws dispose of it, whenever the Welfare of the Publick shall demand such Disposition. He that does not like civil Society on these Terms, let him retire and live among Savages. He can have no right to the benefits of Society, who will not pay his Club towards the Support of it.
    Franklin also said:
    Benjamin Franklin, Queries and Remarks respecting Alterations in the Constitution of Pennsylvania
    Suppose one of our Indian Nations should now agree to form a civil Society; each Individual would bring into the Stock of the Society little more Property than his Gun and his Blanket, for at present he has no other. We know, that, when one of them has attempted to keep a few Swine, he has not been able to maintain a Property in them, his neighbours thinking they have a Right to kill and eat them whenever they want Provision, it being one of their Maxims that hunting is free for all; the accumulation therefore of Property in such a Society, and its Security to Individuals in every Society, must be an Effect of the Protection afforded to it by the joint Strength of the Society, in the Execution of its Laws. Private Property therefore is a Creature of Society, and is subject to the Calls of that Society, whenever its Necessities shall require it, even to its last Farthing; its Contributions therefore to the public Exigencies are not to be considered as conferring a Benefit on the Publick, entitling the Contributors to the Distinctions of Honour and Power, but as the Return of an Obligation previously received, or the Payment of a just Debt. The Combinations of Civil Society are not like those of a Set of Merchants, who club their Property in different Proportions for Building and Freighting a Ship, and may therefore have some Right to vote in the Disposition of the Voyage in a greater or less Degree according to their respective Contributions; but the important ends of Civil Society, and the personal Securities of Life and Liberty, these remain the same in every Member of the society; and the poorest continues to have an equal Claim to them with the most opulent, whatever Difference Time, Chance, or Industry may occasion in their Circumstances.

  2. David in Nashville on

    Glad you’re starting to bring this to our attention. I’ve long been noticing it here in Tennessee, where it’s an important aspect of the incoherence of the town-hall crazies. Most striking is their frequent segue from the death panel” theme to railing against treatment of undocumented immigrants at emergency rooms. Evidently, denying health care to a designated minority group isn’t “Nazi” if it lowers their rates.


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