10 February 2010


Cal Thomas is on his hobby horse again about how people shouldn't be dependent on government. The occasion for this week is a report from the Center of Wealth & Philanthropy showing that wealthy people are leaving New Jersey in order to avoid objectionable taxes. Some readers may find this news reason to argue that states shouldn't be able to wage a race to the bottom to entice businesses or rich people by cutting taxes. Thomas, citing the unimpeachable authority of a Chamber of Commerce chairman, considers the news proof that high taxes cause a decline in any polity's wealth. Liberals refuse to acknowledge this universal truth, he argues, because, being politicians, they try to get themselves re-elected by making people dependent on government largess. They then argue, Thomas charges, that people will starve if taxes or programs are cut, though the columnist cites Clinton-era welfare reform as evidence to the contrary. The moral?

Government must begin weaning people from government. If it won't, we the people must do it. All programs should be continually subject to reauthorization and justification. Social Security and Medicare should be means-tested with incentives for people not to sign up for them. Families should take care of elderly parents, like they once did. Government should be a last resort, not a first resort. Just as too many have been conditioned to turn to government, we must be reconditioned to turn away from government and embrace the higher virtue of liberty.

Do you detect an unusually Orwellian note in Thomas's insistence that Americans must be "conditioned" to embrace "liberty?" Maybe it's just cynicism, since he seems to think that the dumb American people can be conditioned to choose one course, then just as easily reconditioned to choose another. He may really believe that Americans could only be "conditioned" into willing the welfare state into being. But what if our ancestors back in the 1930s and 1960s believed that, since the country was a democratic republic, government was their rightful instrument for improving their quality of life? Why shouldn't we be dependent, if Thomas must put it that way, on our government, after all? Isn't that preferable to being dependent, as most Americans are, on the whims of private citizens who aren't accountable to us the way our government is?

But being dependent on employers somehow isn't "dependence;" Thomas doesn't seem to acknowledge it as such. That's the magic of capitalism; as long as money changes hands, everyone is self-reliant! If the employer gives the employee money, that makes the employee as free as the employer, even though the employer still enjoys the power to deprive the employee of his or her livelihood at will, and the employee enjoys no comparable power to deter the employer. Here's where the free-marketeers will say that the employee can move on until he finds a job to his liking, but the real world tells us that most people ultimately have to settle on terms set by employers if they don't want to go homeless. But that's not dependence, it seems; as long as two people sign a contract it's an equal partnership, regardless of the unequal powers involved. No, Americans can only be dependent in Thomas's pejorative sense of the term when they become dependent on their government. It should be obvious, though, that it isn't the dependency on government itself that Thomas and his fellow Republicans (and their Libertarian acquaintances) object to in that case. They object to what they see as poor people's parasitism on the productive classes who'll be taxed to provide for the needy. Unless they have the power of consent or veto over every detail of the tax code, they react as if it's 1765 and the poor are the British parliament. Because they reject any notion of automatic obligation to their fellow citizens and feel that only voluntary acts are virtuous, they react to the idea of taxation as if their lives and souls were in danger.

There's no reason to reject 100% of Thomas's suggestions as long as they're adopted to reform the system rather than destroy it. Bureaucracies can always be made more efficient, after all. But we have every right to keep dependence on our government open as an option preferable to the sort of feudal dependence upon employers that reactionaries seem to prefer for us. If Republicans and their ideological allies of convenience would deny us that option, then where's the liberty Thomas wants us to embrace? If we aren't free as a people to choose mutual dependence, then the real definition of liberty when Thomas talks about it, as you may have guessed, is "every man for himself."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Another way to look at it is, as you stated earlier, that we are a democratic republic. If "we, the people" have decided, in the majority, to elect representatives that create a "welfare state", then let the will of the people be done. Who is Cal Thomas to deny the citizens the rights they voted for? Why should the right have any cause to complain about the will of the people being enacted, unless the truth is, they don't believe in democracy, they believe in the rule of 1 party, as long as that party is (to their varying definitions) conservative.