Thursday, October 9, 2008

I see two emerging trends that may threaten the core of our nation. One is an erosion of respect for our Constitution, the other what might be a disease of democracy, a tendency for one part of the population to vote itself benefits at the expense of another.

Constitutional Belief

What makes our country's Constitution work is, ultimately, that people believe and expect that it should. Other countries in the world have constitutions, often ones that promise rights such as freedom of the press, but these guarantees are routinely ignored. Why is that? Why did the Soviet Union not respect its constitution's guarantee of the rights of freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, and the right to relivious belief? Mainly because the citizenry understood that "that's just not the way it's done", that is the common citizen's expectations were quite different from what the document stated.

One striking example of an American symptom of this occurred when I was working in the campaign office of (U.S. Congressman) Rob Simmons: a man came in and asked loudly where in the Constitution the federal government was granted the authority to establish Social Security. This seemed somewhat jarring to me (and often does to others), as Social Security seems such a established program that one thinks that such questions must have already been fully resolved; it seemed a laughable question.

Yet if you look at the Constitution, we have a federal government that is only supposed to have the specific powers enumerated there, with all others residing with the states and the people. And there is no enumerated power giving the federal government the authority to establish Social Security. The Constitionality of Social Security was decided in May of 1937 by the Supreme Court, but (according to the Social Security Administration's own web site on its history, only after Franklin Roosevelt threatened to pack the court with extra judges to get his way.

These days (I'm writing this in 2008) some are saying that President George Bush has been "shredding the Constitution" through the Patriot Act, the Guantanamo jail, and telecomm surveillance of terrorists - yet none of this required threatening the integrity of the Supreme Court, and none is geared towards changing the electoral dynamics within the country.

And today, how many people have even thought of the constitutionality of the $850 billion "bail out" bill, or that of the new proposals for the federal government to buy ownership of selected banks? Have we lost any real feel for what our country's founding document really means? If so, we're headed towards a mindset shared by much of the rest of the world, in which a constitution is a nice collection of noble thoughts, but doesn't reflect "the way things really work".

Raiding the Public Purse

This brings me to the second trend, in which it seems increasingly common for Congress to vote benefits to powerful constituencies. This too goes back to FDR, as illuminated by his aide Harry Hopkins commenting on Democratic Party strategy 1933: "Tax, tax, tax; spend, spend, spend; elect, elect, elect." In other words, use the government's taxing ability to collect vast funds, and then use those funds to establish programs that benefit important blocks of voters - once hooked, they'll never vote to remove the largesse they're receiving.

The Fabian Society in Britain supported a move towards socialism through such gradual steps, counting on the populace to never desire to give up such benefits once it had acquired them. The 'political pendulum' might swing back and forth between left and right, but if incremental gains were made and preserved after every leftward swing, eventually a socialist society would result. They took their name from the Roman general Quintus Fabius Maximus ("the Delayer"), who used a similar incremental approach to beat Hannibal in the Punic Wars.

The premise of our Constitution was that it provided a structure which would be adequate to perform the essential services of government, within fairly strict and specified limits. In a full democracy without such limits, the people would be able to vote in any arbitrary measure: to expel all left-handed people, or confiscate the property of any unpopular minority group. Clearly this is not what the founders intended - the idea of freedom requires that many areas of human activity remain beyond government's reach, and they wrote those boundaries into the Constitution. Now we've reached a point where those barriers are being knocked down, not because of some overarching social need or imperative, but as a means to political power. And, like the Soviet citizenry mentioned above, we just accept this as "the way things are", regardless of what our Constitution says. The idea of Social Security being challenged on such fundamental grounds seems laughable only because we no longer seem to care very much about that issue.

I will acknowledge that the motivation behind many of the vast social initiatives of the last 50 years or so may have been partly, or even largely, idealistic. Certainly it seems that the Great Depression may have warranted extraordinary action, though now it's becoming clearer that FDR's steps may well have lengthened and deepened it (see for instance this book; the comments on the Amazon page are worth a quick glance as well). And I'm not sure even that event justified the permanent damage to the Constitution that we've sustained by removing any real barriers to federal involvment in just about any area.

Even if the constitutionally problematic elements of the New Deal were a good idea at the time, to adopt them required an "The ends justify the means" attitude that is unhealthy at best and disastrous at worst. History has shown that freedom is fragile, and at any given moment there may be numerous good and powerful reasons to curtail it or give it up, often sounding quite compelling: social unrest, global warming, religious or philosophical compulsions. Against these there is only one reason to keep it, though it trumps all the others: it is essential to the life of a fully-functional human. It is the only state which allows us the full range of moral action, to live the life that a human ought to live.

It is the confluence of these two trends that is dangerous: our citizenry is slowly but clearly losing its expectation that government officials and institutions closely adhere to the Constitution, and simultaneously is rewarding politicians who bestow gifts from the vast federal budget. The quote below (variously attributed to de Toqueville, Disraeli, and others, though apparently from the Scottish judge Alexander Tyler):

Democracy in America is doomed when the people learn to vote themselves money from the public trough. A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largess of the public treasury. From that time on the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury, with the results that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy, always followed by a dictatorship. The average age of the world's great civilizations has been 200 years. These nations have progressed through this sequence: from bondage to spiritual faith; from spiritual faith to great courage; from courage to liberty; from liberty to abundance; from abundance to selfishness; from selfishness to complacency; from complacency to apathy; from apathy to dependency; from dependency back again to bondage.
Lest you think I'm going too far, consider this recent campaign ad by Hillary Clinton, in which she sits under a Christmas tree and presents new programs as 'gifts' to voters:


(This may also be found on YouTube here, should the above format not be congenial.) This ad so directly illustrates the problem that it hardly seems that more is necessary.

A more subtle use of the same "you'll get something for nothing if you vote for me" approach is the campaign argument brought forth first by John Kerry, and now echoed by Barack Obama: that various proposed tax cuts are "tax cuts for the rich", and are therefore unfair. What they know but don't tell you is this: the rich pay the vast majority of taxes. (scroll down if this blog presentation inserts too much white space above the table.)

Taxpayers by Income Level Percent of Tax Burden Paid
Top 1% 34.8%
Top 90% to 99% 30.2%
Top 75% to 90% 17.6%
Top 50% to 75% 13.1%
Everybody else 4.3%

(This data is from the Tax Foundation, "Distribution of the Federal Income Tax", Special Report No. 101, November 2000.)

Two things to note here: first, most any sort of tax cut will of course leave more money in the hands of "the rich", because they're paying most of the taxes (the top 10% pay 65% of the total tax bill) - anything but a tax cut very much skewed against the rich will have this effect. It has long been a goal of those pushing 'progressive' taxation that the rich pay more; now they do, and consequently any tax cut will as a consequence leave them with more of their money. The people who have advocated this shouldn't now complain that tax cuts benefit the rich: that was implicit in their plan.

The second thing to note is that a tax cut that didn't "benefit the rich" would move more of the burden of taxpaying onto them - if one cut the percentages paid by lower-income segments, "the rich" are the only ones left to foot the bill. The logical conclusion of this process is one in which many, many Americans will pay very little in taxes, while "the rich" will pay most of it (indeed we're pretty much there already). Now, what incentive will the average American have to not vote for expensive programs? He or she won't personally have to pay much if anything - something for nothing! Voters may then make all sorts of choices without any significant personal accountability, which will inevitably be a disaster.

I've put "the rich" in quotes because that's the current term in political circulation, but it isn't quite right. What it should be is "people with high income", which is emphatically not the same thing. Many people who are indeed rich have tax-exempt income, or may just spend saved dollars; income tax won't touch them very much at all. On the other hand, someone who struggles through medical school, practices for a number of years, and finally has a hefty income will be hit very hard as one of "the rich", even if he or she carries substantial educational debt and might well need to make up for a number of low-income years.

I believe there are steps we might take to get out of this bind, before we're in even deeper. They will require a greater respect for the Constitution, and a more ingrained cultural scepticism about candidates promising various sorts of goodies. One glimmer of a solution, which I'll address in a separate post, is to separate the coercive power of the state from the more charitable functions of society, so that any of the various forms of "bribing the voters" become much more transparent and more difficult.

1 comment:

Mr. Pi said...

First post!

Oops, sorry, I thought this was Slashdot.

That's a good essay, especially where you talk about how much different income segments contribute to the government. If we get to where half of all voters pay no tax, we really could reach a tipping point where the majority could vote themselves whatever they want without any consequence. Ideally, this would have negative feedback: too many entitlements would mean there wouldn't be enough rich to soak, and taxes would have to creep back into the lower brackets. But it might not be smooth; there could be a time where taxes on the "rich" keep going up and up, with the predictable economic consequences.

I don't know if Social Security is unconstitutional. It's a form of income tax, which is granted by the 16th Amendment. (To do something unconstitutional, just write it into the Constitution!) The main problem is the entitlement mentality itself. One of the best comments I've seen on this was actually written by a congressman: -- enjoy!