One of the really interesting and healthy things about this election is that, in marked contrast to many previous cycles, this one is being fought on first principles.
Oh, I know it doesn’t seem like it sometimes when you look at what individual candidates are saying about each other. But the issues that are animating people are not the ones we might have expected. With two wars going on, and with the attempted package bomb plot being foiled just days before the election, there is next to no discussion of security issues. Nor are the perennial social issues making much of a splash – abortion, gay rights, even immigration.
Instead, this election will serve as a referendum on what kind of country we want America to be. It turns on the classic divide between Left and Right: the collective versus the individual, equality versus freedom. President Obama gave voice to one side of the vision this weekend on the stump: “We see an America where people care about each other.” It is an America in which people should not go hungry, should not suffer illness without a doctor’s help, should not be denied a share of the bounty. This is a very appealing vision, and it attracts millions in its simple justice – how, in a land as blessed with riches as this, can it not be so?
The conservative view, on the other hand, turns on quaint notions of individual responsibility and liberty. It says that the free market, willingly engaged by independent participants, is the way this country achieved greatness and is the best way for it to return to its potential. Of higher import than the collective well-being of the citizenry is the ability of each one to attain the heights his or her own talents will offer. Freedom, the right to make one’s own choices and succeed or fail according to the consequences of them, is the greater moral good.
These are both profoundly strong arguments. Both are grounded in the American tradition. Both have a solid moral basis. And both rise to prominence from time to time. This is why the pendulum swings in American politics.
It must be said that in terms of popular appeal the liberal argument is easier to love. It is a policy orientation that draws upon the generosity of the American people, and their sense of justice. Many find the natural unfairness of life to be inexplicable, and the can-do mentality that is one of America’s great strengths insists it should not be so. It enables progressives to term themselves the protectors of the downtrodden, benefactors in a Dickensian world of unfairness and suffering. Not only that, but it paints conservatives, who generally oppose the collectivist instinct, as hard-hearted people who care more that the plutocrat should be free to enjoy his millions than that the underdog should be lifted up. The conservative world, in this view, is a brutish, selfish, dog-eat-dog Hobbesian world. It’s easy to see why Republicans tend to get the worst of the public-perception matchup, and why Democrats reliably find support among the young and idealistic.
And yet, this liberal vision is about to be decimated at the polls tomorrow. This is not because of the jobless rate, although that is part of it. It is not because of the arrogance of the Administration and their allies in Congress, although that is a large part of it. it is because the Great Middle of the American electorate, the soccer moms and the independents that were part of the Obama wave, have recoiled at the policies that grew out of the 2008 electoral sweep, and are stepping on the brake.
The Obama/Pelosi/Reid Democrats profoundly misread the results of the last election. Instead of a mandate to transform our society toward the collectivist, redistributionist end of the political spectrum, that election was in fact a purging of the body politic by an electorate that had had it with the rancor of the Bush years, with the fears and frustrations of the War on Terror and the hot wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; and with the seeming inability of the government to stem the downward spiral of the financial crisis. What people were voting for was Obama’s promise of a return to political civility, the post-partisan expectation of a smooth-talking, results-oriented pragmatist. Normalcy. What they got instead was an ambitious attempt, in the midst of a cyclical downturn of brutal proportions, to change who we are as a country. They were not willing to move that far left.
They have ample evidence of where that approach takes us. While the collectivist impulse may seem to have a benign effect – poor people suffer less, rich people benefit less, we all approach a great magnanimous middle – the truth of the matter is that collectivism has corrosive and multiplying effects.
First and foremost is the confiscation of private property. The redistributionist will take from one person and give to another; one asks, by what right should a person be forced to give up the fruits of his/her hard efforts? It is coercive. It is potentially arbitrary. And, while there may be a social benefit at the other end of the taking, there is no denying that one is being separated from his or her own property by the force of the government. Charity is good; charity at the compulsion of the authorities is coercion.
Second is the impact of the first on incentives. If people can not count on keeping the results of their efforts, they will be less likely to make the effort in the first place. At the margin, there is an element of “what’s the point?” That puts a large disincentive in the way of prosperity. There is an equally negative effect on incentives of those who receive the redistributionist benefit. I remember when I was in an honors English class in high school, and my teacher (surely a Bobby Kennedy supporter) assured every student that they had an A for the course, and that their responsibility was to learn diligently. I and many of my class mates did the natural thing in response: next to nothing. Similarly, if the government gives you sustenance, why work?
Thirdly, and probably most devastatingly, the “compassionate” liberal approach increases the scope and power of government, and the dependence of people on the government for provision and support. And with the power of government comes intrusion of government – rules and laws that seek to conform peoples’ behavior to a model that furthers the government’s plan. That intrusion subordinates the freedom of the individual to the social good – as defined by the government.
Finally, it is the inevitable progress of benevolent governments that they find more and more things to spend money on, more and more deserving constituents whose path could be made a bit smoother, and more and more promises that can be made to ensure re-election. All of these benevolences must be funded, and so taxes or debt rise equally inexorably; both are corrosive to prosperity.
So at the end of the day, the collectivist impulse leads to high taxation, economic stagnation, dependence upon government, disincentive to work, create, and succeed on the parts of both the haves and the have-nots, and ultimately limits an individual’s freedom to reach his potential in the pursuit of a broader goal of equality. Meanwhile, government finances descend into a hole from which it is devastatingly difficult to emerge, as we have seen in Greece, France, California, New York, Illinois, and so forth.
Tomorrow’s vote will not mean the triumph of laissez-faire. It remains to be seen where the balance will be struck in the next phase of our national struggle between liberty and equality. But one thing is for sure, and that is that the United States remains a center-right nation, and that the ambition of the 111th Congress and President Obama to shift it leftward will end in the polling booth.