Modern Republicans are all for the redistribution of wealth — but only when it’s going from the bottom to the top.
Senate Republicans defeated two measures last Thursday that would have extended cuts to the payroll tax. One was a Democratic proposal; the other was a GOP countermeasure. The first aimed to cut taxes for employers and employees and paid for it with a surtax on millionaires. The second cut taxes but balanced it by laying off federal workers.
I think this is what it means to be through the looking glass. It’s one thing for Republicans to oppose a Democratic bill. That’s to be expected, even if it means they are now on record as voting to raise taxes on 160 million middle class Americans who are the engine of a sputtering economy. But to kill your own bill, one that cuts taxes and reduces the size of government — well, that’s more than just loopy. It’s an identity crisis.
Simply put: These conservatives aren’t conservative. The Republicans Party has gone so far to the right that it has arrived on the other side of the political spectrum.
Conservatism, as a worldview, has privileged stability and community. It upholds the rule of law, religious values, and respect for tradition. I’m not talking about the Tea Party’s or Karl Rove’s kind of conservatism. I’m talking about the old-fashioned Edmund Burke kind that holds that social change must be gradual and deliberate, approached cautiously if not opposed outright. When it comes to the economy, conservatism has been historically skeptical. Capital tends to consolidate. Civic institutions keep that tendency, and its power, in check.
Adam Smith, the father of laissez-faire capitalism, wrote in The Wealth of Nations that markets can destabilize and even destroy communities. Government’s task, therefore, is “erecting and maintaining certain public works and certain public institutions, which can never be for the interest of any individual, or small number of individuals, to erect and maintain.”
Ironically, Karl Marx agreed. In fact, one can argue that Marx is more conservative than today’s American conservatives. In The Communist Manifesto, Marx wrote that capitalism’s cycles of boom and bust are a “disturbance” to “social conditions” that lead to “everlasting uncertainty and agitation.” Human relations, with their “ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions” are “swept away,” he said.
One thing we can all agree on is that we are experiencing historic levels of “uncertainty and agitation” and that it stems from an economy gone off the rails.
Republicans spend a lot of time establishing their conservative bona fides by emphasizing the need for budget cuts and hard choices. But if they were conservative in the true meaning of the word, they would aim first at establishing stability in communities in upheaval. Cutting payroll taxes, extending unemployment insurance, and reforming a health care system badly in need of repair since the Clinton era are means of doing just that.
But Republicans say no — except to the 1 percent.
Occupy Wall Street has raised awareness of the enormous gaps in income that have emerged in the past 30 years. The compliment to income inequality is wealth redistribution: Over the years, a series of public policy choices as well as banking and tax legislation has redistributed wealth upwards. The repeal of Glass-Steagall, preferred trade status with with China, the Bush tax cuts, Medicate Part D, and the $7.7 trillion that the Federal Reserve loaned to big banks since 2008 — all of these have sucked wealth from the bottom for the benefit of the rich.
Up or down, it’s all the same when government is responsible for moving wealth around. John McCain called it by name in the 2008 presidential race — for the wrong reasons. It’s socialism. Of course, not all socialisms are the same. Marx wanted the equal distribution of wealth and collective control of the means of production. Obama has merely expressed the need for greater economic fairness. But for today’s Republican Party, there’s only one direction: up.
Last week, they killed a payroll tax cut bill (Obama’s) to protect millionaires from paying more taxes. They killed another (their own) to protect millionaires from losing Medicare coverage. If this effort to maintain the upward redistribution of wealth isn’t a kind of socialism, nothing is.
Obama was vulnerable to the socialist charge even before he became president. It would be refreshing to see that charge leveled in the other direction for a change. The difference, in light of current Republican behavior, is that it would be true.
The Roosevelt Institute is a non-profit organization devoted to carrying forward the legacy and values of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.