Politics & Policy

The Liberal Game Made Obvious

Straight to the heart.

In his debate with Jonathan Chait, who calls it rational for liberals to express hatred for George W. Bush, Ramesh Ponnuru flushes out into the open the hidden passional life of liberals.

It isn’t pretty.

Chait tries to say Bush is a “phony,” but as compared to Al Gore this claim can’t persuade rational people. Chait tries to say Bush is more “radical” than he let show during his campaign. But as compared with the euphemisms and evasions of the Left–who admit to only “moderates” in their ranks–this rings hollow. The Left always hides its leftward aims. The Left hides behind Sunday-school teachers, southerners, and generals as its national candidates.

Chait tries to say that Bush is an easterner pretending to be a Texan. But the truth is that one of the most admirable things about both Presidents Bush is that, early in their lives, when they could have sheltered back East under their blue-ribbon family trees, both chose the most difficult environment in America for easterners–the Texas oil fields. Texas oilmen love to taunt Yankees. Nonetheless, Bush the elder ended up in Houston, but Bush the younger went back to Midland, Texas. There are no travel agencies in Europe that have brochures on Midland.

Chait says that the younger Bush was handed everything, did nothing meritocratically. Yet no one handed young Bush his thorough drubbing of Ann Richards in the Texas gubernatorial debate. The same with his crushing of Al Gore, supposedly the debater par excellence, in three presidential debates.

Sensing desperation, Chait’s comments about the younger Bush’s accent, posture, and mannerisms come down to ethnic prejudice and intellectual bigotry. None of this is remotely rational.

So then Chait is forced to reveal that the party of hate has one truly important, even sacred, agenda, that Bush has frustrated: high taxes on the rich. Bush has cut the taxes of millions of taxpayers at a proportionate rate, which of course benefits more those who pay more taxes, and benefits most those who pay most taxes, the hated rich. For Chait, that makes Bush worthy of hate.

Now this reason, too, is a little odd. From President Jefferson to President Theodore Roosevelt there was no income tax in America, and it never entered into the heads of the Democratic or any other party that a limited government should confiscate money from some Americans on the pretext of giving it to others. Nor that in so doing government should pry relentlessly into every item of income. (Where are today’s civil libertarians on this massive invasion of privacy? What reasons could possibly justify this massive governmental intrusion into the most basic liberties?)

Chait explains it this way: Only if the “affluent” (his word) pay a lot more in taxes, can government have enough resources to “help the poor.” If Bush does away with progressive taxation, then the middle class will have to pay more taxes, and that will doom government programs. The middle class will rebel. As Chait puts it:

Shifting the federal tax burden downward makes middle-class taxpayers less likely to support future government programs, since they will have to pay for it themselves, rather than having a disproportionate burden picked up by the affluent.

There is the liberal agenda in essence. The liberal secret. The liberal passion.

The rich should be the indispensable heroes of liberals, because the rich are the linchpin of the liberal agenda, the one true hope for liberal success. Liberals need the rich. Take away high taxes from the rich, and the liberal program flounders, Chait suggests. Why, then, do liberals hate the rich? It’s easier to understand why sheep hate to be shorn, than why liberals hate those they shear.

Personally, I like liberals, and am grateful for their contributions to national discourse. A monologue in which only neoconservatives talked (i.e., reformed liberals) would be comparatively boring.

Chait, however, reveals three annoying pretenses of the liberal heart.

(1) The first pretense is that most of all liberals want to help the poor. For self-critical people, this fails the laugh test. It is true that for the elderly, liberal programs have worked very well, and improved the condition of millions–except that these programs (Social Security, Medicare) are so badly designed that they are exorbitantly wasteful, and are now on a course to bankrupt the country, as the numbers of the recipient elderly grow, and those of the paying young shrink.

And consider the state of the young poor, ages 18-34, after our 40-year “war on poverty.” In many ways their condition is worse than it was in 1966. Violent crime batters them three or four times harder than before. Their families are less often fully formed, and many, many more of them are growing up in single parent families than in 1966. The liberal-run public schools are sliding downwards in several dimension–good order, academic seriousness, and knowledge of our country’s history and philosophy.

If the money spent on the war on poverty had been distributed directly to the poor it would have given every poor family (there are about seven million of them) something like $30,000 per year. That would have ended “poverty” as an income category, though perhaps not in its behavioral dimensions.

Do liberal programs help the poor, as Chait assumes? For the young, the evidence runs in the opposite direction.

(2) The second pretense is that the Left consists mainly of intellectuals, activists, and others who are not particularly rich, so that when liberals speak of “the rich” they may speak of them as “others,” as in (with venom in the voice) “tax cuts for the rich!” As it happens, the political campaigns of the Left depend far more on high earners and big givers than the campaigns of the right. Being on the left has deeper cultural than economic roots.

Meanwhile, middle-class liberals disproportionately control the administration of government programs and private philanthropies, again spending the money of others, and not infrequently adding to the increased dependency of those they mean to be helping.

(3) The third pretense is that liberals possess a superior degree of virtue. Assuming this pretense, liberals hold conservatives to be “mean-spirited,” and attribute to GWB the most contemptible vices of “any president in this century.” As Democrats say, “The Road to Hell is Paved with Republicans.”

There is plenty of reason for strong differences in public-policy judgments. The law of unintended consequences sets up even the most rational of plans for pratfalls. A sense for “how things work” is therefore of more practical value than mere verbal fluency. Meanwhile, in matters of judgment, good people differ. So, why exactly does the Left always have to claim superior virtue?

And in what exactly does liberal virtue consist? In taxing other people, not oneself, people for whom one has contempt, in order to transfer their money to “the poor and needy.” (Or, rather, only a portion of that money; don’t forget the heavy administrative costs.) Liberal programs, Thomas Sowell has written, are oddly designed, feeding the horses as a way to feed the swallows.

And in what exactly does Bush’s vice consist? In exposing this racket, and in putting an end to it.

Bush has provided a compelling alternative vision: personal and familial independence (through school vouchers, personal Social Security accounts, personal medical accounts, and the like), under which the condition of the poor and the needy is far more likely to improve than under the current ill-designed system, “the liberal plantation,” which keeps as many as possible in dependency.

No wonder some liberals hate Bush. Their hypocrisy is being exposed.

That really hurts.

And renders them almost speechless with fury.

Members of the National Review editorial and operational teams are included under the umbrella “NR Staff.”


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