Remember American Exceptionalism? What happened? America was going to be different, right? Exceptional. The first to try a radical experiment in self-government. Who better to govern a people than the people themselves?
The old way was the few rule and the many serve. The few owned 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.
Enlightenment thought said that all are equal, with equal rights to life, liberty and happiness. Conservative reaction was to protect the old ways. But ideas don’t die easily and Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson articulated these in the new world and said, let’s do this! And a new nation was born, “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
The Preamble claims that we form our government to “establish Justice … (and to) promote the general Welfare.” The idea that people could ever be motivated solely by interest in the common good is beyond naïve. But equally far-fetched is the notion that we can have a true society by pursuing narrow self-interest.
Consider tax policy. It’s in everyone’s individual interest to pay as little as possible. But the over-all good suffers. As taxes on upper incomes drop, disparity rises. Is this “good” for the community? How? As 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 equitably distributed. Not that anybody should be “given” anything but rather, let us recognize that wealth isn’t solely a product of entrepreneurship or “ownership.” Many factors contribute including labor and materials. Perhaps Earth’s resources can be most efficiently brought to market by the private sector but it does not follow that all wealth thereby created must go to the few. The “owners” of production deciding who gets how much is not so much “fair” as it is leverage. In Plato’s Republic Thrasymachus argues that justice is nothing other than the advantage of the stronger. Socrates points out that the many are stronger than the few, so the many can leverage the few in the common interest. In a democracy the good of the many is about as close as we can likely ever come to advancing the common good. We don’t want wage mandates so the only lever we have is tax policy. We should return to the higher marginal rates of the ‘50s and ‘60s. Higher marginal rates accomplish two good things: more revenue (balance those budgets), and more reinvestment in the American economy as the wealthy avoid taxes by deferring 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 we expect our policy makers to respond to such an appeal? Or is patriotism only something the have-nots are supposed to show during wartime?
Do we want to be exceptional or don’t we?