By JAMES K. FITZPATRICK
It is one of the great questions of our time: Why do we seem so complacent about the rising national debt? Every politician in the country says it is unacceptably high, but then changes the topic. The debt is currently well over $17 trillion. That means each American owes approximately $54,000, with each taxpayer owing about $149,000. We all have heard the clever quip about how it is no big deal because we “owe it to ourselves.” That is only partly true. It is true that many American citizens, banks, and investment houses have bought the government bonds that constitute the debt. But so have foreign countries, the Chinese, Japanese, and Saudis, especially. But, regardless of the bondholders, we have to redeem the bonds when they come due. Everyone — Democrat, Republican, liberal, conservative — agrees that this constitutes a crushing obligation for the economy. Yet there is no plan in sight from our political leaders to end the coming train wreck.
Why do the politicians shrug and go about their business when the topic comes up? Some say it is a version of French King Louis XV’s confidence that he would be out of office before the crash occurred: “Aprés moi, le dèluge.” No doubt, some of that is going on. Also some wishful thinking.
But, I submit, there is another motivation: There are those who are unwilling to cut back on government spending, regardless of the consequences, until the country has eliminated significantly the differences in standard of living between members of our society.
We must keep in mind that, from the late 18th century on, there have been two conflicting understandings of what is meant by “equality.” Our Founding Fathers understood the word to mean “equality of opportunity”; that there would be no privileges in law granted in the United States to an aristocracy in the “pursuit of happiness.” The Founders accepted that this understanding of equality would do nothing to prevent economic inequality. They accepted that individuals not handicapped by primogeniture, titles of nobility, and class would inevitably achieve varying levels of economic success; that equality of condition could be imposed only by an oppressive government that treated its citizens unequally by limiting their opportunities in business or expropriating their earnings through taxation.
Hence, it has been the consensus American view that all that we would be guaranteed as Americans, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, was that “artificial weight” would be “lifted from all shoulders — to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all — to afford all an unfettered start, and a fair chance in life.” Or, as we hear people frequently phrasing it in our time, we have been guaranteed “equality of opportunity, not equality of results.”
But it should not be forgotten that this is not the only understanding of equality that has been part of our intellectual and political history. Ever since the time of the French Revolution, there have been those who have argued that for “equality” to have any meaning, it must include economic equality; that the freedom to be out of work, homeless, underpaid, starving, and exploited by the rich is not a freedom worth having.
In France, men such as “Gracchus” Babeuf called for the abolition of private property and the redistribution of national wealth. His countryman Louis Blanc called for guaranteed employment for all at a “living wage” through government employment in what he called national workshops. The leaders of the Paris Commune in 1871 took control of sections of Paris and called for government control of prices, wages, and working conditions to ensure a redistribution of France’s wealth, from the landowners and the owners of businesses to the lower classes.
This thinking spread beyond France. In England, the Fabian socialists — led by individuals such as George Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells — called for a government takeover of the nation’s resources and businesses to ensure fair wages, fair prices, and humane working conditions. They were called “Fabians” because they called for these reforms to be brought about peacefully and gradually, in a manner similar to the slow, grind-it-out battle tactics of the Roman general Fabius. The Fabians took this position to distinguish themselves from the followers of Karl Marx who called for violent revolution and dictatorship to achieve economic equality for the working class.
I submit that this is the root of the American reluctance to tackle the national debt. Most Americans think of equality in terms of equality of opportunity, in line with the Founding Fathers. But there are those who agree with the understanding of equality rooted in the view of the 18th and 19th-century French radicals. They hold that, as long as there are people in the United States with substantially fewer resources than others, there is a need for expansive government intervention financed by higher taxation, to end that injustice.
The point is not that those who call for greater spending on government housing, food stamps, welfare payments, tuition assistance, single-payer health insurance, and a “living wage” are familiar with the writings of Gracchus Babeuf and the Fabian socialists, only that they are motivated by the same conviction that our society is unjust — and in need of remedial action through government programs and higher taxation — as long as there are people in the country who live with considerably fewer resources at their disposal than the better-off.
It does little good to point out to those who think this way that most of the poor in our time in history have more material resources — indoor plumbing, heated homes, cable television, Internet service, and access to tattoo artists and wigmakers — than the middle class in the 19th century. What matters is not what you possess, but whether you possess less than large numbers of your fellow-citizens. In their eyes, if you possess less than your neighbors — regardless of the differences in education, work, and self-sacrifice between you and them — it is unjust.
The corollary is that the government should spend and tax to whatever level is necessary to end the injustice; that the national debt is not an indication that the government is spending too much, only that it is not collecting enough in taxes.
From all indications, those who hold to this understanding of what is meant by “equality” are becoming an ever-increasing segment of society, one that can be energized by politicians seeking to use their discontent to secure a voting bloc that will keep them in office. It is a serious challenge. It would mean that the political views of the European radicals are threatening to supplant those of the Founding Fathers.
Barack Obama is fond of calling for a “transformation” of the country. If those seeking the European socialist understanding of equality carry the day, it will be a transformation of great proportions.