Herbert London is the author of Decade of Denial (Lexington Books) and most recently America's Secular Challenge (Encounter Books), and publisher of American Outlook. He can be reached at: www.herblondon.org.
A Man Apart
Albert Camus was expert at describing a man apart, an existential man, the Stranger, who didn't belong in the society in which he found himself. He didn't have emotional roots; in fact, this character was haunted by shadows -- the real and the metaphorical. He is the quintessential rebel challenging normative standards.
At the risk of drawing literary comparisons, I am persuaded based on his performance that President Obama is a man apart. He seems to equate power with arrogance; pride with willfulness, and exceptionalism with dominance. As a consequence, he has changed foreign policy perceptions. The America he leads is a nation like any other -- no more, no less. In fact, as a Nobel laureate, he is considered by the Europeans as a man of the world, not merely a citizen of the United States.
When asked if the United States is exceptional, President Obama said America is exceptional, and England is exceptional, and Greece is exceptional. That the United States is sui generis didn't cross his mind. How could it? He is pledged to a scenario in which America opts out of its traditional role as peacekeeper, the balance wheel in maintaining international equilibrium. The war against terrorists is over, along with the nation's hegemonic role.
Unfortunately the war fatigue President Obama embodies is not embraced by our global enemies who see this shift in his policy attitude as a sign of weakness and retreat. I believe President Obama actually thinks that unilateral concessions to our real and putative enemies will result in reciprocal responses. But as his bizarre overtures to the Olympic Committee demonstrated, gestures directed at multilateralism and celebrity status do not result in favorable results. Real power as opposed to soft power still has meaning on the world stage.
A man with roots would know that wild policy swings of the kind that we've experienced with healthcare, cap and trade, and education proposals cannot possibly fly with the American people, even with those who voted for President Obama in the last election. Despite cultural shifts in the nation, the United States still fashions itself as a conservative nation. Only a man apart cannot sense that condition.
My contention is not that the President is devoid of conviction. In fact, his political tilt is decidedly to the left, the hardcore left. My assertion is different. I believe this President doesn't understand the rhythms, the pulse of the American people. He is not merely outside the main stream. He doesn't even recognize it. He is a basketball player who has been asked to bat.
At first I thought his initial popularity would carry him through to a second term. But as each day passes and the false, almost inappropriate, gestures register, Americans are beginning to recognize this man apart. He is our stranger in a land he doesn't understand.
Americans are not war-like, nor does imperial ambition fill their souls. They have done almost nothing for which daily apologies are necessary. Their blood soaks the beaches of Normandy, their graves litter European towns, and their fortune saved millions from the plight of destitution. Americans do not appreciate a man so removed from their history, so out of tune with the American experience, that he reflexively expresses regret for the very conditions that should engender pride.
Perhaps this president will learn. But I am not confident that can happen. His life experience without a father in his home and a mother seeking adventure abroad is unstable. His closest associates vilified the nation he now leads. Is it any wonder his wife said she could take no pride in America till now? The past is to be rejected. Milestones in history are erased from memory as storage cast aside as unnecessary.
This is a unique moment in our history. It is certainly the only time in my life when our national instincts are being reconditioned. From a nation that was a model to the world, we are now told that superiority is unbecoming, a hindrance for the emergence of global egalitarianism.
President Obama, as a man apart, may attempt this recasting of America, but, as I see it, America is not yet ready for his experimentation and, most likely, never will be.
The New and Old Socialism
Whether it is the socialism espoused by the Nazis or the socialism of the former Soviet Union or the socialism that is emerging in the United States, there is one overarching sentiment, however different socialism in these three societies may be. Socialism everywhere expresses envy of excellence by treating the contributions and wealth of the successful as the wages of sin.
The Nazis saw the sin as a Jewish conspiracy; the Soviets saw sin as the exploitation by the bourgeoisie; and what is emerging in the United States is the sin of the wealthy.
In the Obama administration greed is considered the sin that must be opposed. But greed, whatever its deficiencies, is, as Adam Smith pointed out, an incentive for the promotion of capitalism which in the aggregate has a salutary influence on the economy. To combat greed, the socialists emphasize envy. Since equality is the goal, even trivial differences in income are exaggerated and the progressivity in the tax system is employed as a blunt instrument to impose equality.
Lincoln said "you can't make a poor man rich by making a rich man poor." But President Obama seems to believe that wealth is invariably related to the wages of sin and must be controlled or, to use his language, "spread around." To make sure this happens, government must expand and, in so doing, the private sector will inevitably contract. That explains why socialism, which purports to represent the interests of the average person, ends in overwhelming government control or outright tyranny.
Just as greed has its excesses, envy manifests excess in schadenfreude, a desire to destroy rivals or, in this instance, penalize the alleged wages of sin. If you assume wealth is bad, invariably a function of illicit or inappropriate acts, it must be penalized by surtax to pay for universal health care or a 40 percent income tax. Even though one percent of the population pays for close to 40 percent of government revenue, it is still not enough for the masters of egalitarianism. They ask, why should so few have so much? And they answer by arguing for leveling, i.e., a collision at the income mean through transfer payments.
Of course, what the egalitarians never realize is that at some point the rich will take their assets to a safe harbor or, assuming there are restrictions on moving capital, will simply be less productive. Contrary to the supposition of the enviers, it takes only about ten percent of the population to be a catalyst for innovation and wealth generation. If there aren't rewards for this portion of the population, there won't be the technological breakthroughs that foster economic growth.
That, of course, is the rub for President Obama. On the one hand, he needs to tax heavily in order to generate the revenue for his ambitious domestic agenda. On the other hand, excessive taxation will most likely result in more disappointing revenue projections than he anticipated since the wealthy will be less productive than they were in a low tax environment.
That socialism cannot work is the inevitable conclusion of Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead and the historical experience of the 20th century. If excellence isn't the goal of personal achievement, conformity or mediocrity reigns. If wealth isn't a reward for success, poverty reigns. And if success is a sin, failure is a virtue.
Yet, despite this reality, socialism is a persistent idea. My suspicion is that socialism is related to the belief that most people think they can be free riders; they can get something for nothing by taking from the rich. But this Robin Hood psychology is, in fact, a form of theft. It subtracts from the fruits of one's labor and, without apologies, contends arbitrarily that some people simply have too much.
Alas, socialism condemns "too much" and ends up giving too little. What it offers is an ideal, an abstraction of equality that is intoxicating. But its destructive influence inexorably becomes apparent. Why be productive, if others produce for you? And why would you oppose high taxes, if these revenues offer "free assistance?" As Hayak noted, the road to serfdom is littered with promises of the golden age, a time when the government provides all that you need.
President Gerald Ford put this matter in perspective when he noted "that a government big enough to give you everything you want is a government big enough to take from you everything you have." It's too bad President Obama doesn't read history.
There is a shift occurring in the United States, a tectonic shift that is imposing statism in a land predicated on limited government.
In the past, the not very distant past, mediating structures served as a barrier against managerial despotism. But these structures have been under assault for decades and are showing signs of weakness and decay.
The family has been undermined by divorce and illegitimacy. Schools have eroded rigor and standards. Churches resemble social institutions more than religious centers. And associations like Rotary and Lions are suffering from insufficient enrollment and a lack of interest.
The America Alexis de Tocqueville described in mid-19th century is largely gone, a testament to the past when national identity was being refined. Not only is the culture unable to orchestrate the competing interests of government and the individual, it contributes to the widespread belief that if liberty must be modified for the sake of security, that is a trade-off the public is willing to accept. The New Hampshire slogan "Live free or die" is great for license plates, but not for contemporary politics.
Some would argue that big government is a natural consequence of living in a bigger and more complex nation than was the case a hundred years ago. It was needless to say. But what is not so obvious is that incrementally the government has assumed the position of granting rights to citizens instead of having citizens grant rights to the government. During this onset of the recession it was believed by members of both parties that extending government power was essential in dealing with the economic vicissitudes of the moment. In doing so, however, the politics of grievance has emerged. If the government uses its largesse to address social woe how are "rights" determined, and who allocates the benefits? A government insistent on handouts will be a government that encourages grievance.
If government benefits end up as more important than liberty, this democratic republic cannot survive. As Frederic Bastiat among others noted, a plebiscitary democracy that hands out "free" benefits will end inexorably in authoritarianism. This is, alas, the road to serfdom as Friedrich von Hayek described it.
Let me not overstate the case. Despite an inclination to support limited government as the nation's Founders did, my issue with the Obama administration, to cite one example, is that it is weak where it should be strong and strong where it should be weak.
For example, the president has put his prestige and influence behind a healthcare proposal that a majority of Americans oppose and that willy-nilly will shift healthcare to the public sector. By contrast, Iran has violated the non-proliferation agreement, has abused its citizens for contesting electoral manipulation, and has been the leading state sponsor of terrorism. Yet the president who should recognize and resist these challenges seems weak and unresponsive.
Americans realize the government of Grover Cleveland may not be an appropriate model for President Obama. But they are beginning to realize that government intrusiveness can reduce if not discard their liberties. In fact, there is hardly a liberty enumerated in the Bill of Rights that hasn't been curtailed in some fashion by recent governments. Perhaps the only liberty that has expanded its reach under a heretofore unknown precedent of privacy is sexual freedom. But is sexual freedom cover for the reduction of every other form of liberty?
The road to serfdom is paved with rights and benefits. People want more of whatever someone else will pay for. The casualty in this assessment is personal responsibility and liberty.
We are not yet an authoritarian state and my hope is that America never will be one, but it is imperative we guard against that eventuality, recognizing that the rights we invent come with a corresponding withering away of freedom. Big government may not be a problem if it exercises power judiciously and in ways that promote American interests. Yet it is also true that government has a stake in perpetuating itself. It may not always be the problem, but it is rarely the solution and all the programs that the American people covet may in the end alter the America they once loved and admired.
The Race Ploy
In 1994, during my campaign for New York State Comptroller against Carl McCall, the race card was played persistently by members of the press and by my opponent. Since I had been active in civil rights causes, opened a headquarters in Harlem, was a sponsor of CORE events and had two men of color as my campaign chairmen, Reuben Diaz and Roy Innis, I was perplexed and disappointed. It became exceedingly ugly when Bob Herbert in a New York Times column called me a "racist," a claim that was made without the slightest effort to speak to me directly or examine my record.
Even though I thought I was emotionally calloused, the charge hurt. Most significantly, it had a chastening influence on my campaign. Even though I felt Mr. McCall made mistakes in our debates and had adopted positions that made him vulnerable to criticism, I was reluctant to challenge him. It was restraint borne of a false, but effective, charge.
As I listened to comments by former President Jimmy Carter and other members of the Democratic party, I have had a strange sense of deja vu. Some have argued that criticism of the president's healthcare proposal is based on race, not the weakness in the proposed legislation. If you accept this argument, criticism is negated by its egregious and prejudicial character. Presumably President Obama wants to move the country ahead, but the contemporary Bull Connors have plotted to undermine his effort.
It is one thing for an irresponsible radio personality like Janeane Garafalo to make this outrageous claim, but when it is made by leaders in the party, the effect can be chilling. What it means is that bullying tactics can be used to stifle debate. Not only will race be employed as a trump card, it will be the catalyst for dictatorial control.
Should criticism hit home, arguments that cannot be rationally countered will be neutralized with the "nuclear race option." Surely serious proponents of Obamacare must realize that well-meaning critics can differ with the president on the essential features and details of his proposal. But it is easy to challenge reflexively using race as the sine qua non of argumentation.
For a president who said he was committed to a post-racial administration, it would make sense for him to repudiate this stratagem. Yet he has been either conspicuously silent on this matter, or insulting to his critics. In a way that may indeed be inadvertent, he is promoting the use of the race card as a political device.
It is instructive that the more argumentation reverts to this base ploy, the less value it has. The racist charge has lost its effect because of the irresponsible manner in which it's employed. I can recall Rep. Charlie Rangel maintaining that tax cuts were a function of racism. Every police action against a black assailant is invariably a racist act according to the Reverend Al Sharpton. And companies that do not support Reverend Jesse Jackson's foundation are ipso facto racist organizations.
The public is increasingly desensitized to this extortion racket, but it is quite another matter when the president's adherents rely on white guilt to buttress their position. This stance is divisive and dangerous. Stifling debate is not the sort of thing a president can encourage without deep-seated damage to the body politic.
I have been on the receiving end of this tactic and can testify it isn't pretty. I won't say it isn't fair since that is obvious. But with some -- and I fall into this category -- it is effective. Once you start engaging in preemptive censorship, the other side of the debate has won even if his position is flimsy and unworthy.
It is time to put race to bed, to realize it should neither be an advantage nor disadvantage. For race baiters, however, that is impossible; it is all they know and the one tactic that has yielded the result they want. But if President Obama is intent on bringing Americans together, he must denounce this ploy once and for all, even if it means his detractors are free to challenge his proposals. After all, these challenges could make his arguments stronger than they are at the moment, and might even be good for the soul of the nation.
No Taxation With Representation
The American Revolution had one inspirational lament that echoed through the pages of our national history: "No taxation without representation." For our Founding Fathers these poignant words meant that the British imposition of taxes was unacceptable without the expressed will of the people. It was an idea that was built into a republican form of government and was as much a British idea as an American one.
In 2009 a new, arguably perverse, view of this proclamation is in vogue: "No taxation with representation." It is increasingly clear that at least 45 percent of the American people do not pay income tax yet are key to the election of many representatives. Their votes count as much as the 55 percent who do pay taxes. Moreover, if one relies on the quasi-Marxist rhetoric that emanates from Washington, the nontaxpayer has a claim on the assets of others.
In the Republic Plato argues against democracy because he feared the power of the mob, those free riders who expect others to care for and attend to them. When their numbers increase to some tipping point, democracy is imperiled.
At the moment one percent of the population pays about 40 percent of the tax revenue for the country. When President Obama talks about "spreading the wealth," what does he mean? Should one percent pay 50 or 60 percent and, if so, what are the disincentives to wealth creation that will emerge? As it stands, ten percent of the population generates over 90 percent of the revenue.
The influence of high taxation on a minority invariably breeds resentment. But the effect on the large majority is just as significant. For those who obtain benefits without payments, an entitlement psychology unfolds. It's my due say the less wealthy as if wealth itself is a sin. Although it is hard to generalize from a sample of one, I can recall that during the Obama campaign an adherent said she favored the Democratic nominee because he would assist with her mortgage, her car payments, and her accumulated debt.
That in a nutshell is the spirit of national welfarism, something for nothing. Is this woman concerned at all about the tax burden on others? Is she aware of the disincentives for productive activity? Are the politicians who pander to those who crave a handout sensitive to the effect of their policies?
What conceivable interest can this woman have in national tax policy? As far as she is concerned a 100 percent tax is desirable as long as she gets her due.
From my perspective everyone should be taxed. If progressivity is the standard, invert the rate for the poor. Those who have little should pay little, but they should pay something, anything that displays a commitment to the nation and its goals. The negative tax doesn't demand that sentiment and, as I see it, the nation requires this understanding.
Some have said that there should be a property requirement for voting, a demonstrated stake in the society, and a standard that existed before 1820. I don't think that idea has any chance of acceptance, but I do contend that everyone should pay taxes, whether it's $5 or less -- a sum that suggests the individual is a party to the national interest, not merely a free rider.
In a sense, this gesture is symbolic. It certainly won't generate revenue sufficient to deal with unfunded liabilities. However, it does send a message that we are in this national mission together. It is time to overcome the belief that a small minority is obliged to address the concerns of a large majority. And it is time as well to suggest that no one is entitled to the fruits of someone else's labor.
A tax must be perceived as fair and universal. And if the populace wants the benefits of representation, it should display an interest in taxation. Wasn't that once the American way? *
"To take from one, because it is thought his own industry and that of his fathers has acquired too much, in order to spare to others, who, or whose fathers, have not exercised equal industry and skill, is to violate arbitrarily the first principle of association, the guarantee to everyone the free exercise of his industry and the fruits acquired by it." --Thomas Jefferson