Scaling Back the Favoritocracy
Chalk up Scott Brown's victory to Paul Revere populism.


Kennedyland became Scott Brown Country on Tuesday, but across the border in New York, where I live, it was business as usual.

Gov. David Paterson proposed a billion dollars in new sales taxes. The state has blown through all the money it has taken out of our pockets in recent years and now needs more. Each fiscal cycle brings a raft of new taxes or tax hikes: school taxes, municipal taxes, county taxes, state taxes. Last year a “commuter” tax was promulgated in Albany. I don’t commute, but I have to pay it anyway. “It’s really not that much money,” the apparatchik on the phone told my wife.

In the midst of a slump, Governor Paterson proposes to hire hundreds of new auditors for the revenue squad. Tax collection: New York’s growth industry. It’s made the state the second-most highly taxed jurisdiction in the nation. New Jersey wins that race, but the Empire State is still proof positive that the Sozialstaat, like the Roman excise taxes Gibbon deplored, is a weed that, if unchecked, will eventually darken the world with its deadly shade.

What New York is, America will one day be. The math isn’t complicated. Overall government spending in the United States, which accounted for less than 7 percent of the gross domestic product in 1903, was estimated in 2009 to account for more than 45 percent of GDP. That’s a lot of commuter tax.

The voters who sent Scott Brown to the Senate saw the future, and they didn’t think it worked. The classic image of the campaign — the guy riding around in his pickup under silver-and-pewter Massachusetts skies, sounding the alarm “to every Middlesex village and farm” — didn’t hearken back to late-19th-century populism, with its faith in the state’s power to right social wrongs, or to antebellum nativist populism, which blamed the newcomer and the stranger.

Brown instead took us back to the Paul Revere populism of the Revolution, when patriots galloped around insisting that it wasn’t fair that one class of English subjects (those in America) should be treated differently from another (those in England).

The Massachusetts Miracle video made the connection. Brown called for a level playing field and an end to the (rigged) machine. Look at what Wall Street, that erstwhile bastion of free enterprise, has become in the last quarter century. In her important new book After the Fall, Manhattan Institute scholar Nicole Gelinas shows that Washington’s too-big-to-fail policy has in effect socialized big banks by insulating them (as social policies will) from the market.

Martha Coakley’s internal polling suggested that many in Massachusetts think that “Washington prioritizes Wall Street over Main Street.” It’s not surprising. Small businesses tank. Big ones don’t. With the emergence of the social-financial nexus, the favored few make more money than ever, and your tax dollars help them do it.

Many Massachusetts voters distrust the health-care bill for the same reason they are skeptical of Wall Street’s hyper-profits. “One key to Brown’s victory,” according to Rasmussen’s election-night poll, is that 41 percent of Massachusetts voters “‘strongly opposed’ the [health] plan while just 25 percent ‘strongly favored’ it.”

Brown voters look on health-care reform as yet another excuse for an extension of the favoritocracy. You get bumped up to business or first class if you live in Nebraska, or if you belong to the right union, or if you know Rahm Emanuel. Brown voters do not, I think, want to penalize legitimate success — their own or anyone else’s. President Obama’s calls for vengeance taxes on the well-to-do failed to stir them. Brown voters aren’t fed up with people’s making it. They’re fed up with the government’s helping a connected elite to make it.

While ordinary people struggle, Wall Street revels in subsidized profits, and public-sector mandarins have never been more prosperous. The average salary of federal workers rose in 2009 to $71,206, not counting bonuses, overtime, and benefits; the senior managers, who constitute 19 percent of the civil service, on average received salaries of more than $100,000. The average private-sector wage in 2009 was $40,331. The federal civilian workforce, the Cato Institute’s Chris Edwards observes, “has become an elite island of secure and highly paid workers, separated from the ocean of private-sector American workers who must compete in today’s dynamic economy.”