American conservatives have lurched so far to the right they’re now trying to re-litigate questions about the role of government that have been settled for hundreds of years.
The redistribution of wealth is a perfect example. Listening to today’s Republicans, one would think it is some kind of pernicious and un-American leftist principle – an idea only embraced by foreigners, socialists and assorted freaks.
During the waning days of the 2008 campaign, John McCain jumped on Barack Obama telling “Joe the Plumber” on the campaign trail that we need to “spread the wealth around” a little bit. It became the heart of the case that the decidedly centrist Obama is a “socialist.” A feverish video blaring the headline, “Obama Bombshell Audio Uncovered. He wants to Radically Reinterpret the Constitution to Redistribute Wealth!!” appeared on Youtube soon after. The offering, from a conservative blog called Naked Emperor News, promised: “This video exposes the radical beneath the rhetoric.” (As the Washington Post‘s “Fact-Checker” noted, “On closer inspection, the ‘bombshell audio’ turns out to be a rather wonkish, somewhat impenetrable, discussion of the Supreme Court under Earl Warren.”)
Last year, after BP’s DeepWater Horizon rig blew up, polluting the Gulf of Mexico, Rep Michele Bachmann, R-Minnesota, slammed the president for pushing the oil giant to establish a fund to pay claims to Gulf residents impacted by the disaster. “The president just called for creating a fund that would be administered by outsiders, which would be more of a redistribution-of-wealth fund,” said Bachmann. “If I was the head of BP,” she added, “I would let the signal get out there — ‘We’re not going to be chumps, and we’re not going to be fleeced.'”
The common response to this kind of blather is to point out that conservatives like Bachmann are absolutely in love with policies that redistribute wealth, as long as they shift it from working people upward to the investor class. Whether we’re talking about trade policy, labor rules that make it difficult for workers to organize or shifting the tax burden from corporations to the backs of American families, the results of the right’s long class war from above are plain to see.
The top 1 percent takes in more than twice the share of national income today than they did 30 years ago. Paul Buchheit, a professor with City Colleges of Chicago, crunched some numbers using IRS data and found that “if middle- and upper-middle-class families had maintained the same share of American productivity that they held in 1980, they would be making an average of $12,500 more per year.” At the same time, top earners pay far less in taxes than they did when Ronald Reagan was in office.
That’s certainly a valid and factually accurate argument, but it misses a larger point: conservatives are demagoguing what political scientists call a “defining function” of the modern nation-state. Redistributing wealth is every bit as integral to what governments are supposed to do as defending a country’s borders or maintaining a functional judicial system. Every government, whether it leans right, left or somewhere in between, redistributes wealth, and they do it constantly.
The right portrays wealth redistribution to the denizens of Fox Nation as the government “stealing” the cash of hard-working Americans and then sending checks to the “undeserving” poor. But “transfer payments” are just one form of wealth redistribution, and in this country, they make up a tiny fraction of the whole.
Every time a public road is built, a forest fire is extinguished or publicly funded research unearths a new medical innovation, wealth is also redistributed. As long as we don’t make people pay their exact share of the cost of laying that road, extinguishing that fire, or researching that therapy, wealth is being redistributed. In rough terms, our military budget costs every tax-payer in the United States about $4,000 per year. But not everyone pays $4,000 or more in federal taxes – every year, the Pentagon budget represents a significant redistribution of our national wealth. But when conservatives say they hate redistributing wealth, they’re not talking about cutting military spending.
Like every country, we’ve been redistributing wealth since the birth of our republic. In his book, Fed Up!: Our Fight to Save America From Washington, Texas governor and newly minted presidential candidate Rick Perry wrote that the 16th Amendment, which gave birth to the federal income tax, was “the great milestone on the road to serfdom” because it represented “the birth of wealth redistribution in the United States.” That’s the kind of ahistoric gibberish that’s become typical of the far-right these days.
In reality, we’ve actually been redistributing the wealth since before the founding of the nation. The American colonies imposed “faculty taxes” – which combined the characteristics of income and property taxes – on their citizens. And after the country was founded, we never stopped redistributing the wealth – while federal taxes on income came about with the ratification of the 16th Amendment in 1913, the government collected taxes, mostly in the form of tariffs, from the very beginning. By 1796, 14 of the 15 states then in existence levied property taxes; Delaware also taxed any income people derived from their property.
These taxes financed federal and state governments – they redistributed wealth from property owners and importers to the population as a whole. So it’s a simple, indisputable fact that, like Barack Obama and Ronald Reagan, the Founding Fathers so revered by the Tea Partiers and politicians like Bachmann and Perry were very much in favor of wealth redistribution.
Given that it’s a defining function of the nation-state as we know it, in a country with a sane discourse, taking place among an informed populace, we’d only be debating whose redistributive policies have what effect on our political economy. But that’s a discussion conservatives don’t want to have. They don’t want to oppose popular programs like Medicare on mere ideological grounds. So, like deficit hysteria or blanket claims that every progressive program is unconstitutional, they’re trying to avoid that debate by vilifying the bedrock concept behind modern government – taxing the population based on what people can afford to pay, and providing public goods that are available to all, regardless of their fortunes.