Kinsley’s Class War

Michael Kinsley lays the liberal worldview out for all to see – including the idea that democracy and capitalism are incompatible. This view is absolutely dangerous for many reasons, but first it’s important to dissect Kinsley’s arguments.

The fall of communism 14 years ago was not the end of history, despite Francis Fukuyama’s famous prediction. It was, though, pretty much the end of the argument, in most of the world, about the best way to organize society. The answer (despite quibbles over the details and a surprisingly resilient minority preference for theocracy) is democratic capitalism.

But this intellectual victory for the dynamic duo didn’t resolve the tension between them. Democracy presumes and enshrines equality. Capitalism not only presumes but requires and produces inequality. How can you have a society based on equality and inequality at the same time? The classic answer is that democracy and capitalism should reign in their own separate “spheres” (philosopher Michael Walzer’s term). As citizens, we are all equal. As players in the economy, we enjoy differing rewards depending on our efforts, talents, or luck.

This is where Kinsley makes a horrible mistake in logic. Democracy does not enshrine "equality". Nor is the United States a democracy in the pure sense. Both of these distinctions are absolutely critical to understanding the nature of US politics and government.

The US is predicated on a form of equality – equality under law. That is not a form of substantive equality. Martha Stewart and I have the same right to petition our government, bear arms, and speak freely. However, I have absolutely no right to share of Martha Stewart’s money because she has more than I do. (As much as I’d love just a fraction of her income…)

Where Kinsley and Walzer make another mistake is in stating that economic rights and political rights exist in their separate spheres. They are linked – you cannot expect to take away someone’s economic rights without harming their political rights as well. That is why socialist economies become invariably bureaucratic and communism becomes totalitarianism almost instantly. Politics is all about people protecting their own interests. If you weight the system in such a way as to transfer wealth from the rich to the poor, you have to create a system in which the the rich cannot protect their interests. In other words, you have to not only take their money, you have to gag them as well.

What the Founders realized is that people are manifestly not equal. They didn’t create a democracy – they created a representative republic. They realized that people have differences in skill, in talent, and in motivation. Not everyone has the skills or the ability to change public policy. This is why we have representatives rather than going to the public for every issue. The public doesn’t know or doesn’t care about most matters of government – our representatives are the ones who are paid to know these things. Our system of government doesn’t try to steamroll inequality – it is based on the presumption that inequalities can and do exist.

But how do you prevent power in one from leeching into the other? In various ways, we try to police the border. Capitalism is protected from democracy, to some extent, by provisions of the Constitution that guard individuals against tyranny of the majority—for example, by forbidding the government to take your property without due process of law. Protecting democracy from capitalism is the noble intention, at least, of campaign finance laws that get enacted every couple of decades.

Kinsley is right on the first part, the Founders created due process of law as a fundamental doctrine for precisely the reasons elucidated by Kinsley. However, the second appears nowhere in the Constitution. Campaign finance reform is entirely a construction of the last 40 years. In fact, the Federalist #10 shows what the Founders would have thought of such efforts – in order to prevent the tyranny of the majority it is necessary to have a multiplicity of voices. Campaign finance reform is not enshrined in the Constitution, it is not supported by the Founders, and it is not at all accurate to paint it as some integral part of the US political system. Kinsley’s historical revisionism belies his real intentions: the sort of state-controlled socialism that is against the very structure of the US political system.

Separation of the spheres also depends on an unspoken deal, a nonaggression pact, between democracy’s political majority and capitalism’s affluent minority. The majority acknowledge that capitalism benefits all of us, even if some benefit a lot more than others. The majority also take comfort in the belief that everyone has at least a shot at scoring big. The affluent minority, meanwhile, acknowledge that their good fortune is at least in part the luck of the draw. They recognize that domestic tranquility, protection from foreign enemies, and other government functions are worth more to people with more at stake. And they retain a tiny yet prudent fear of what beast might be awakened if the fortunate folks get too greedy about protecting and enlarging their good fortune.

Again, the pathologies of the left are on display here. The rich are not some distinct entity from the rest of us. Kinsley is essentially arguing that the rich have more at stake, and that they have an obligation to give back to the community. Those are both true assertions, and it would be difficult to argue otherwise. However, its the conclusions that Kinsley and other liberals draw from this that show where liberalism goes wrong.

That was the deal. Under George W. Bush, though, the deal is breaking down. With Republicans in control of the White House and both Houses of Congress, the winners of the economic sphere are ratting on their side of the bargain and colonizing the sphere next door. Campaign contributions are only the crudest way power is transferred from the economic sphere to the political one. In addition, there are well-financed lobbying organizations, including some masquerading as research institutes. There is the inherent complexity and boredom of tax and regulatory issues, which repel people who don’t have a major financial stake. There is the social milieu of the president and most members of Congress. They may not all come from the worlds of posh aristocracy or self-satisfied business success (Bush remarkably straddles both), but these are the worlds they are plunged into as they rise to congressional leadership. And, in the back of their minds, these are the worlds they may hope to find a place in when they lay down the weary burdens of power.

Kinsley is essentially arguing that all these things should be removed or reversed. The subtext of this is that there should be caps on campaign contributions, that lobbying should be limited, and that the rich should have little say in the political process. Of course the people who have the most interest in an issue should have the most say. Again, our system was based around self-interest. That’s precisely why our system was designed so that there are a multiplicity of voices and a number of competing bodies under checks and balances.

Kinsley finds himself making the argument that our government must enshrine equality, but some people are more equal than others. The voices of the well-off are somehow dangerous and need to be tempered. People who contribute to research organizations like the Heritage Foundation should not have the right to speak for their ideals by supporting groups that support them. Such an argument ignores that it isn’t just the rich that support these groups. I support groups like Heritage and others, and according to the Democrats I’m a member of the "working poor" that the GOP is desperately trying to screw over.

The problem with Kinsley’s brand of liberalism is that they never ask who decides what is constitutes the "rich". The small business owner who works their ass off 60 hours a week, employs a dozen workers, and has two kids in college to pay for is technically "rich" in terms of their income. However, it would be morally obtuse to suggest that they are somehow undeserving of their success. Yet the liberal mindset is that a government aparatchik in Washington has the right to impose even more burdens on that person solely because they have more on paper. The tax structure is no longer about funding the necessary government functions like defense and transportation, it has become a tool of regressive social engineering to punish those who work hard and invest intelligently.

In order to bring out this "fair" society the government must be given the broad powers to take from some and give to others. Such a system must be insulated from self-interest, and cannot be influenced by the political process. Such a system would be nothing less than catastrophic. Liberals assume that government is insular from the same self-interest and short-term considerations common to the private sector. Except that vision is manifestly not true. Government is no less self-interested than business, except that business has to pursuade customers – government can order people to do things. The Founders were wise enough to realize that taking away someone’s economic rights is tantamount to removing their political rights as well, which is why there is no constitutional article on campaign finance reform. They also realized that the only way to safeguard the republic was to limit the powers of government. Liberals, even if based on the best of intentions, want to erode those protections. In order to create the kind of "fair" society argued for by the left, one would have to give the government unprecedented power that would be ripe for abuse. It is not democracy and capitalism that are in tension, it is liberty and equality. To borrow a phrase from another of America’s great Founders – "give me liberty or give me death!"

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