The Left’s political problem is to pay for all the benefactions it wants to bestow. In Europe’s social democracies, leftists have addressed that problem by offering a package deal: “The welfare state we want to build will have to be extensive and expensive to address our serious social needs. It will be so expensive, in fact, that we cannot possibly finance it without taxes that impose real sacrifices on most of our citizens, not just the wealthy. A robust, well-funded welfare state will do so much to improve the quality of life that our citizens would be demonstrably worse off with the higher take-home pay they would enjoy as a result of combining a big tax cut with proportionate reductions in social-welfare programs.”
And that’s pretty much how the Left governs. In Sweden, for example, the world’s most comprehensive welfare state, the most affluent tenth of the income distribution pay 26.7 percent of all taxes. This is virtually identical to their percentage of “all market income,” which is 26.6 percent. (See “Growing Unequal,” a report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.) In the United States, by contrast, those in the top tenth pay a portion of all taxes, 45.1 percent, that is a third larger than the portion, 33.5 percent, of the total income they receive. Other famously generous welfare states, such as France, Germany, and Denmark, resemble Sweden, having tax systems far less progressive than America’s.
Why? Because America’s party of the Left must contend with our Don’t Tread on Me Jeffersonianism. To reassure voters more likely than Europe’s to fear ambitious government, the Democrats offer a different package deal: “We’ll build a welfare state that gives things to you, does things for you, and — best of all — someone other than you, someone richer
than you, will pay for it.” Thus, Barack Obama promised (as did Hillary Clinton, his 2008 Democratic rival) to expand old social programs and launch new ones without raising any federal tax on any family with an income below $250,000. Having met the easy political challenge, persuading voters to accept government largesse, Democrats have voted “Present” when confronted with the hard part, persuading voters to pay for that largesse. The hard part, however, determines the fiscal feasibility of the easy part.
Liberal writers occasionally criticize this approach. Cohn’s New Republic colleague Timothy Noah, for example, has urged Obama to realize (or admit) that if he doesn’t raise taxes on the middle class, he’ll have to “forget about achieving meaningful deficit reduction.” For Obama to jettison his $250,000-threshold pledge “would be political suicide . . . right now” — that is, when he’s trying to win reelection by telling voters what they can expect from him. But “if Obama gets a second term, he’ll have to get over his aversion to raising taxes on the middle class.” In other words, tell lies during the campaign and face reality after the election.
Obama does not need Noah’s advice on how to be more deceptive, but it’s unlikely that elected Democrats will pay any attention to Noah’s recommendation to be more courageous. Even liberal commentators, who don’t have constituents to placate or coalitions to maintain, convey the need to raise taxes on the middle class infrequently and circumspectly. Democrats who must face voters are far more reluctant to find out whether the promise to raise taxes will boost their careers more than it helped Walter Mondale in 1984. Obama’s pledge about confining tax increases to a small subset of Americans was not an unforced error. Rather, it was an acknowledgment that Democrats have never tried, much less managed, to convince voters that the Democratic domestic agenda is so beneficial that ordinary Americans — not just the CEOs of the companies they work for, or the stars of the TV shows they watch, but their own friends, neighbors, and co-workers — should pay significantly higher taxes for government endeavors.
Democrats hate Paul Ryan because he has taken the measure of their cowardice and made public the logical, humiliating conclusions of their disingenuousness. The most important feature of the House Budget Committee’s long-term plan is its commitment to keep federal taxes where they have been, on average, since World War II, between 18 and 19 percent of GDP, and to bend the spending curve down until it meets that line. There’s nothing subtle about the message to Democrats:
“America is having enormous trouble paying for the welfare state we already have, much less the far more ambitious one you guys want to build. If you ever find the courage, and then the language, to persuade Americans to pay much higher taxes for the sake of perpetuating and perpetually expanding our welfare state, Republicans will challenge those bad policies. We’ll acknowledge, however, that they are at least affordable bad policies.
“It will be easy to know when brave Democrats succeed in catalyzing American politics. That day will have arrived when Republican politicians have good reason to fear that the most serious consequence of opposing a tax increase will be not another denunciation by the New York Times editorial page but defeats at the ballot box. Until Democrats assemble that electoral majority of Americans insisting on higher taxes, we must devise spending plans consonant with the federal government’s existing (and effectively unexpandable) revenue stream. Republicans are proposing big changes in existing social programs and strict limits on future government outlays, to make the operations of the welfare state compatible with the government’s revenues.
“Democrats who find those changes appalling can do one of three things: persuade Americans to accept enormous tax increases; offer an alternative plan, humane and enlightened, for the federal government to address social needs by spending no more than 19 percent of GDP; convince the nation’s voters and the world’s lenders that a huge and permanently widening gap between federal revenues and spending is nothing to worry about. There is no fourth option.”
— William Voegeli is a senior editor of the Claremont Review of Books, a visiting scholar at Claremont McKenna College’s Salvatori Center, and the author of Never Enough: America’s Limitless Welfare State.