What ever happened to American Exceptionalism? Remember that? America was going to be different, exceptional. The first to try a radical experiment in self-government. Who, the question was, is better fit to govern a people than those people themselves? No one! Government of the people, by the people, for the people!
The old way of government, before the rise of Liberalism and the “rights of man,” was for the few to rule and the many to serve. The few owned all the land, the many worked it. The few had plenty, the many sometimes starved. The many paid taxes so the few could live in luxury. The many fought wars so the few might increase their wealth.
Then came The Enlightenment and the idea that all are equal, with equal rights to life, liberty and happiness. And a conservative reaction to try to protect the old ways.
But ideas don’t die easily and Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson articulated these ideas in the new world and said, we can do this! And a new nation was born, “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
Now we are engaged in a great debate, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. At issue is whether we can survive as an exceptional nation, a nation with equality as an ideal. The Preamble to the Constitution states that we form this government to “establish Justice … (and to) promote the general Welfare.” Worthy, noble goals. How best to achieve them? By insisting that government get out of the way of profit-seekers?
No one doubts that humans are motivated by self-interest. The idea that people could ever be motivated solely by an interest in the common good is beyond naïve. But just as far-fetched is the notion that we can achieve the society that we desire by everyone always pursuing his own, narrow self-interest.
Consider tax policy. For thirty years we’ve tried to tax-cut our way to prosperity. Has it worked? I guess it depends on how we measure. Do we look at the richest one per cent and see how they’re doing? Or do we look at the median America household and see where it stands?
As taxes on upper income levels have dropped, income disparity has risen. Is this “good” for the community? How? As more and more wealth has accrued to the few the “misery index” has risen. As the middle class has shrunk the prison population has more than doubled. Coincidence?
We need the wealth of the nation to be more equitably distributed. This does not mean that anybody should be “given” anything but rather that there needs to be recognition that wealth isn’t solely a product of entrepreneurship or of “ownership.” Many factors contribute to the creation of wealth, including labor and raw materials. “America” decided long ago that the earth’s resources could most efficiently be brought to market by the private sector but it most certainly does not follow that all the wealth that is thereby created must go to the few. The “owners” of production deciding who gets how much of the profit is not so much “fair” as it is an example of leverage. Plato’s Thrasymachus argues, in The Republic, that justice is nothing other than the advantage of the stronger. In refutation, Socrates points out that by that definition the many are always stronger than the few. So the many can leverage the few in the interest of the many. In a democracy the good of the many is about as close as we can likely ever come to the advance of the common good. If we don’t want to mandate wages (we don’t) the only lever we have is tax policy. Which is why we should return to the higher marginal tax rates of the ‘50s and ‘60s. Higher marginal tax rates accomplish two good things: more revenue, which will go a long way toward balancing budgets, and more reinvestment in the American economy as the wealthy attempt to avoid some of the taxes by deferring some income.
I don’t expect multi-national corporations to respond to an appeal to patriotism and “do what’s right for America.” But can’t I expect our policy makers to respond to such an appeal? Or is patriotism only something the have-nots are supposed to show during times of war? Are we going to be exceptional or aren't we?