Obama's punitive liberalism, or why treating success as a form of failure is wrong
Why are many thoughtful people, including many Democrats, so uneasy about the prospect of an Obama presidency? Please don't tell me it's because of "racism." The race card, in so far as it operates in this election, will operate mostly in favor of Obama (consider, for starters, the fact that he is expected to get in excess of 90 percent of the black vote--a percentage many dictators campaigning in a single-party state would be happy with). It's not because of Obama's alleged "elitism," either, though Obama's contempt for the "bitter" people "who cling to guns and religion" gets us to the right neighborhood.
William McGurn, in a brief but splendid article in The Wall Street Journal yesterday, helps us to understand the way that moralism plays out in Obama's policy prescriptions. The key term, McGurn notes, is "fairness," a loaded word that Obama (like many liberals) deploys as a moral bludgeon. Consider the issue of taxes. At Saddleback Church in Southern California the other day, one of the issues Rick Warren asked McCain and Obama about was taxes. "Define rich," he asked. "I mean give me a number. Is it $50,000, $100,000, $200,000? Everybody keeps talking about who we're going to tax. How can you define that?" Some on the Left have pilloried McCain for saying that he considered an income of $5 million a year "rich," but the gravamen of McCain's response, as McGurn points out, came in his elaboration: "I don't want to take any money from the rich. I want everybody to get rich."
How different was Obama's response. What he was looking for, he said, was "a sense of balance, and fairness in our tax code. It is time for folks like me who make more than $250,000 to pay our fair share."
"Our fair share." That is the Obama refrain. "[W]e will save Social Security for future generations by asking the wealthiest Americans to pay their fair share." It's a small step from the invocation of "our fair share" to Obama's call for a tax on "the windfall profits of oil companies," a tax increase on capitals gains, elimination of the tax on Social Security tax, etc., etc.
The crucial point here is that what Obama is interested in is not increasing but in promulgating redistributionist policies that make it harder for people to prosper economically. McGurn recalls Obama's response to ABC's Charlie Gibson when Gibson observed that rasing taxes led to decreased revenues: "Well, Charlie," Obama replied, "what I've said is that I would look at raising the capital gains tax for purposes of fairness."
"For purposes of fairness": that means, "for purposes of economic egalitarianism." McGurn comments:
[I]t doesn't really matter whether a tax increase actually brings in more revenue. It's not about robbing from the rich to give to the poor. Robbing from the rich will do, especially if it's done in the name of fairness.
Now there are good reasons Mr. Obama is not likely to pursue the revenue side of the fairness question. As this newspaper noted in a recent editorial, the latest data from the Internal Revenue Service does not show to Mr. Obama's advantage. As we come to the end of the Bush administration, the top 1% of American taxpayers already pay 40% of all income taxes -- the highest level in 40 years. The top 10% of income earners pay 71% of the taxes.
The bottom line is that when Obama invokes "fairness," he wants us to feel guilty about economic success. This is the secret of his appeal to to socialistically inclined. It is also the reason why the rest of us are so uneasy about the prospect of an Obama administration.
It has long been recognized that liberalism and feelings of guilt go together as predictably as tea and crumpets. In the title essay of his remarkable book The Chatham House Version, Elie Kedourie criticizes the anti-Western bias of Arnold Toynbee’s multi-volume A Study of History. "In my eyes," Toynbee wrote in his concluding volume, "the west is a perpetual aggressor." Kedourie points out that behind Toynbee’s impressive erudition ("the far-fetched analogies, the obscure references, the succession of latinate, polysyllabic words") one discerns "the shrill and clamant voice of English radicalism, thrilling with self-accusatory and joyful lamentation. Nostra culpa, nostra maxima culpa: we have invaded, we have conquered, we have dominated, we have exploited."
One finds the same emotional compact among socialistically-inclined liberals in this country: a conviction of superior virtue punctuated by declarations of unappeasable guilt. Whose guilt? Ours--or, to be more precise--yours: all you who have not yet fully acknowledged the miserable condition of Western society, especially the more affluent purlieus of Western society, and above all those parts of affluent Western society that happen to be white, male, and Christian.
This phenomenon, though long recognized, was without a proper name until James Piereson, writing in The Weekly Standard a few years ago, coined the perfect epithet: "punitive liberalism." In this, as in so much else, Obama hearkens back to the radical policies of an earlier era. "From the time of John Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 to Jimmy Carter’s election in 1976," Piereson writes,
the Democratic party was gradually taken over by a bizarre doctrine that might be called Punitive Liberalism. According to this doctrine, America had been responsible for numerous crimes and misdeeds through its history for which it deserved punishment and chastisement. White Americans had enslaved blacks and committed genocide against Native Americans. They had oppressed women and tyrannized minority groups, such as the Japanese who had been interned in camps during World War II. They had been harsh and unfeeling toward the poor. By our greed, we had despoiled the environment and were consuming a disproportionate share of the world’s wealth and resources. We had coddled dictators abroad and violated human rights out of our irrational fear of communism.
Piereson’s great insight is to stress the punitive, the chastising side of this orgy of guilt. Liberals like Obama come telling us they are making a better world; they omit to mention that what they mean by "a better world" is a world that is distinctly worse for certain groups, in particular groups that liberals decided had hitherto been unfairly privileged. "The punitive aspects of this doctrine," Piereson writes,
were made especially plain in debates over the liberals’ favored policies. If one asked whether it was really fair to impose employment quotas for women and minorities, one often heard the answer, "White men imposed quotas on us, and now we’re going to do the same to them!" Was busing of school children really an effective means of improving educational opportunities for blacks? A parallel answer was often given: "Whites bused blacks to enforce segregation, and now they deserve to get a taste of their own medicine!" Do we really strengthen our own security by undercutting allied governments in the name of human rights, particularly when they are replaced by openly hostile regimes (as in Iran and Nicaragua)? "This"--the answer was--"is the price we have to pay for coddling dictators." And so it went. Whenever the arguments were pressed, one discovered a punitive motive behind most of their policies.
It was, as Piereson notes, one of Ronald Reagan’s great achievements to overcome, at least temporarily, the emotional mandate of punitive liberalism. Piereson quotes from Reagan’s speech at the Republican Convention of 1980: "My fellow citizens," Reagan said, "I utterly reject that view. The American people, the most generous on earth, who created the highest standard of living, are not going to accept the notion that we can only make a better world for others by moving backwards ourselves." What a breath of fresh air, especially after four years of Jimmy "Mr. Malaise" Carter!
The question that confronts us now is what reservoirs of confidence we still can draw upon. Did Reagan really "vanquish" punitive liberalism, or did he merely rebuff it momentarily? The extraordinary, uncritical acclamation accorded to Obama by the Left suggests that "we have scotched the snake, not killed it." But at least now we know what we are fighting. Punitive Liberalism is alive and well in the Democratic Party, at The New York Times, in our courts and universities. It would be nice if another Ronald Reagan were to appear and remind us that we cannot move forward by moving backwards. Perhaps John McCain is that person. Although I do not endorse all of his policies, I admire his forthrightness. In any event, I hope that people will begin calling Obama's "fairness doctrine" by its real name: it's not fairness, but punitive liberalism. The first step towards freedom is calling things by their real names. With the phrase "Punitive Liberalism," we at last have a truthful name for the toxic doctrine that would have us believe success is a form of failure.