In this blog, I have been defining the 30 year experiment of the New Right as being largely libertarian with regard to its political appeals, theory of how society works, and attitudes toward government and taxation. To be fair, I have pointed out that the Republicans’ agenda includes two other potentially conflicting influences, social conservatism and support for an interventionist national security state. I have chosen libertarianism as the dominant trend of the three in part because it is the most all-inclusive and influential in the area of economic policy and politics. In this post, I will argue that Republican-libertarian/Tea Party politics and policy are based on short-sighted greed, which is a moral accusation that is extremely obvious yet has not been spoken of as such in the public sphere.
It is surprising that after a monumental economic slump caused in part by Republican pro-greed policy, that the same group committed to short-sighted greed may make substantial electoral gains in November against President Obama and the Democrats. The Democrats are relatively speaking more committed to our long-term self-interest as a nation, though have made some deeply problematic policy suggestions and political strategy. They have proposed and passed laws which are cumbersome and sometimes wrong-headed (I’m thinking about the health care bill). The Democrats have stumbled badly in communicating their intents and commitment to a sustainable American prosperity. However the Democrats are not so exclusively beholden to irrationality and short-sighted greed as the Republicans who are standing for office or campaigning for re-election.
The substantial imperfections of the Democrats pale in comparison to the callous disregard for the welfare of the American people of the Republican Party, some of whom are now campaigning to return America to the 18th or 19th Centuries. Recently some “Tea Party” candidates have been campaigning against public education. For their mistakes, the Democrats deserve to have their feet held to the fire but, even more, the Republicans do not deserve to be rewarded for their insanity and sheer stupidity. Thus electing Democrats and challenging them in 2012 primaries would send the right message (even challenging the President in a primary makes sense) rather than switching over to the Party that brought us to ruin and doesn’t care. Though the timidity and cluelessness of some Democrats is maddening, they are not as blind and morally bankrupt as their Republican opponents, in a vast majority of cases.
Providing and Paying for Public Goods
The Republican appeal to short-term greed is nowhere more evident than in the extreme tax phobia that Republicans both foment and play upon. Over the past 30 years, few politicians have stood up for the benefits paid for, in part, by taxes, reminding the American people that the “pain” of taxes leads to the “gain” of individual and overall social benefits. It has become political common sense in the US to never appear to have raised taxes. Multiple factors have led to this impasse which now immobilizes most sitting politicians; proposing a tax has become a stigma away from which politicians run headlong. The link between a social benefit and payment for it has been broken in the mind of the public, largely due to the promises of a market-based solution for everything that postpones the planned payment for goods and services via raising government revenue. The fantasy of a market “fairy” that will make the pain of taxes go away has infantilized the American public. Both Democrats and Republicans have played into this; however, it is Republicans who have promoted an ideology of almost complete tax phobia, where taxes are considered to be a total and complete subtraction from the welfare of society as a whole.
Never Pay for “Other People”
Republicans and the media outlets associated with the Republican/ libertarian ideology (Fox News, business news channels, right-wing talk radio) have now drilled into many people the notion that taxes and other pooled economic resources are an unfair system of paying for “other people”, in particular people who are less fortunate. There is no conception of “there but for the grace of God go I” or other conceptions about the varying degrees to which people experience fortune and misfortune over their lifespan. The recent incident involving a fire department in Tennessee not putting out the fire at a house that didn’t pay the voluntary “fire fee” has been cited with approval by right wing pundits as the way society should be organized. In the Republican/libertarian ideology, every material possession that one has presently or might have in one’s personal dreams of future wealth is supposed to be a personal virtue and attribute; to be deprived of money by taxation means to be deprived of these personal virtues. There is no sense of a dynamic, interactive economy in this view, only a static collection of goods which is being fought over; in this view, someone else’s gain is always your loss.
Furthermore, in the libertarian/Republican worldview is no conception of the idea that certain goods (public and common goods) are most efficiently paid for via pooled resources with those with more money paying more than those with less. The progressive taxation system instituted almost 100 years ago is under attack by Republicans and libertarians who feel that this is unfair. It is difficult not to judge this as the promotion of an ethic of exceedingly narrow self-interest that focuses simply on what one currently has without any notion about how economies function and income is earned, goods and services are produced. The idea of society having a “commonwealth” which benefits all and enables individual wealth to be enjoyed is an impossibility in the “dog eat dog” world promoted by Republicans.
Piling on Benefits at the Top
In the libertarian/Republican way of doing things, not only are the poor and less fortunate not to receive minimal benefits, but the rich are to receive outsized rewards and approbation. While initially taken seriously by many, the trickle down theory of economics has turned out not to work out so well. The idea was that the wealthy and corporations invest more if they have more money, so it is best to cut taxes on these groups. History has not borne out this hypothesis. In the past 30 years as the tax rate on top earners has gone down, income inequality has increased while the investment in job-generating capital assets has gone down in the US. As it turns out, the wealthy and corporations prefer not to tie up their money in long-term investments like factories and businesses but instead to speculate on the value of existing or new paper assets. Or, if more money can be made by building productive assets in a low wage country like China or Thailand, investors will do so not out of malice but by simply following the rules set out by government under the sway of libertarian market-fundamentalism.
Republicans continue to campaign based upon the idea that the wealthy need to be pampered though Democrats are still susceptible to the notion that cutting taxes will lead to job growth. Granted, raising taxes in a recession is not a great idea. Still, the attitude of those who can afford higher taxes that they owe little to society has been amplified by trickle-down economics. Meanwhile historical and international comparisons lead us to believe that low taxes do not lead to the development of good jobs and productive investment.
We have learned something from this massive social experiment in trickle down economics: investors do not spontaneously invest in wealth-creating assets if they are allowed to keep more and more of their income with no strings attached. Investors feel little duty to society if that society releases them from any sense of duty.
A Moral Judgment: Greed
Thus the judgmental word “greed” is the most fitting explanation for what is recommended by Republicans under the influence of libertarianism and trickle-down economics. While we have given them the benefit of the doubt for the last few decades, the results are in and the notion that “greed is good” has not turned out so well for the overall welfare of the American people.
Greed vs. Long-Term Self-Interest
Judging greed doesn’t mean that self-interest and profit from productive investment is wrong, only that an unending and undifferentiated worship of wealth as its own justification has led us to social decay and economic downfall. Electing politicians who celebrate greed will likely only hasten that downfall and decrease our overall welfare as a society.
Our long-term self-interest involves engaging in both individual efforts at self-enrichment as well as efforts to rebuild and reinforce a commonwealth, which has decayed under the assault of libertarian ideology over the past 30 years. Without a strong commonwealth, individual wealth is less likely to be accumulated or, if achieved, less likely to be enjoyable. Furthermore, from history, it appears as though engaging in productive investment over the long-term is encouraged by a sense of social mission shared by both the rich and the not so rich. Libertarianism denies the existence of or denigrates that sense of social mission.
Eating the Seed Corn
One definition of greed is that you “eat the seed corn” of society. The “seed corn” are the kernels of corn that you would need to plant to produce corn for the next year. If you “eat the seed corn” you are condemning yourself to starvation. Libertarianism and its free market ideology encourages us to “eat the seed corn” by assuming that private market actors and activity on markets will provide all public goods. Thus those public goods that are already in place are degraded, for instance the roads and bridges which our ancestors built.
The horrifically short-sighted, greedy act of eating the seed corn is however obscured from Republicans and libertarians own awareness because they have developed a counter-narrative which Democrats have reinforced. Budget deficit hysteria has led people to believe that public budget deficits and public debt overshadow current and near-future needs for passable roads, health-care, and a 21st century infrastructure. They believe that it is Democrats who are “eating the seed corn” by incurring public debts for these projects. They strategically ignore the fact that the US has a fiat currency and can within fairly expansive limits, borrow in times of need (as have all governments). World War II would not have been winnable without the government being able to borrow substantially…but this is too much based on history for the feeble rationality of the Republican arguments.
Since the existence of real public goods like roads and schools is hardly acknowledged by Republicans and some right-leaning Democrats, they have been able to promote a race to the bottom to parade their own efforts at fiscal prudence while ignoring the historical situation in which we find ourselves, which calls for government spending. They insulate themselves from acknowledging their own greed by creating a made-up scenario where running budget deficits is a sin against the future, while they perpetrate the actual transgression of disregarding the future and promoting their own greed and that of their patrons.
For too long, the key role of public and common goods has not been celebrated and acknowledged, allowing Republicans to twist virtue into vice and vice into virtue.
Republicans’ Projection of Greed Onto Others
As I have discussed in an earlier post, Republicans and libertarians tend not to engage in honest self-examination and are likely to project their own faults onto their political opponents, often in a pre-emptive manner. Thus Republicans have quickly labeled government and unions as the greedy ones while attempting to shield themselves and their patrons from such a judgment, though it would be far more appropriate to apply to themselves and their backers. Public employees unions which largely exist to defend public sector workers are thus portrayed as being necessarily more greedy that multi-millionaires who devote their lives to the acquisition of material wealth. Greed exists in all sectors of the economy, but it is laughable that Republicans ascribe this character fault to almost everybody but themselves and their wealthy patrons.
Don’t Reward Greed!
In November, the electorate has the opportunity to reward greed or to work towards a future where greed is kept in check and harnessed to our long-term interest as individuals and as a society. Please elect Democratic candidates and if they fail in their mission, challenge them in primaries in 2011-2012!!