The Undeserving and the Common Good

Tea Party Republicans are quite certain that they deserve their own Social Security and Medicare. But they are outraged that undeserving people get taxpayer-funded benefits from the government.
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Americans have long debated two fundamentally different visions of what kind of country the U.S. should be. The first is the vision of a society that provides unrestricted liberty to acquire wealth. The second is the vision of a realized democracy in which rights over society's major institutions are established. In the first view, the right to property is lifted above the right to self-government, and the good society minimizes the equalizing role of government. In the second view, self-government is considered superior to property, and the good society places democratic checks on social, political and economic power.

Both of these visions are ideal types, deeply rooted in U.S. American history. Both have limited and conditioned each other in the U.S. experience. But in every generation one of them gains predominance over the other, shaping the terms of debate and possibility.

Today the Republican Right is preaching a very aggressive version of the former social vision, a throwback to Social Darwinist ideology. The story of our time, in this view, is that a great people is being throttled by a voracious federal government. Americans are over-taxed; government is always the problem; somehow the federal government caused the financial crash; we have a debt crisis because we have too much government; another whopping tax cut for the upper end is always in order; and taking down Obama is more important than anything.

The Tea Party movement exploded into being by claiming that Obama's mildly Keynesian stimulus of $787 billion was anti-American and Socialist. We had lost nearly 3 million jobs the previous year, we lost 741,000 in the month that Obama was inaugurated, and the economy was free-falling into a Depression. Even Republican economists contended that the U.S. desperately needed a Keynesian infusion to stop the economy from spiraling into an abyss. But somehow it was horribly wrong to save the nation from reliving 1933. On the basis of this absurd position every House Republican voted against Obama's stimulus and the Tea Party subsequently won a tremendous political windfall -- which has made the Republican Party more extreme than ever.

The Tea Party is overwhelmingly white, middle-class, and either middle-aged or elderly. It thrives on a deeply felt dichotomy between the deserving and the undeserving. At the grassroots level, much of the Tea Party is not hostile to Social Security or Medicare, unlike the professional ideologues that are exploiting it. Tea Party Republicans are quite certain that they deserve their own Social Security and Medicare. But they are outraged that undeserving people get taxpayer-funded benefits from the government. In the Tea Party version of the American dream, there is no such thing as the common good. There is only the sum of individual goods, which many people do not deserve.

The Right-wing anti-Obama literature charges incessantly that white liberals coddled an undeserving Obama into and through Harvard Law School, financed his political career, and fawned over him all the way to the White House, where he betrays America's national interests and slathers the undeserving with Obamacare and food stamps. The Tea Party, a new phenomenon, capitalizes on resentments and a mean-spirited ideology that are far from new in U.S. American life.

But the idea that we owe obligations to each other to serve the common good is equally long-standing in American history and politics. A federal budget is a moral document. If we scaled back America's global military empire and reinstated a morally decent tax system and budget, we could eliminate the entire federal debt by 2021 without cutting Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, education, or research.

A decent system would have additional brackets for the highest incomes, as the U.S. once did. It would have a bracket for $1 million earners and a bracket for $10 million dollar earners and a bracket for $100 million earners and so on. It would lift the cap on the regressive Social Security tax, taxing salaries above $110,000 per year. It would tax capital gains as ordinary income. It would cap the benefit on itemized deductions at 28 percent. It would tax U.S. foreign income as it is earned. It would eliminate the subsidies for oil, gas, and coal companies. It would place a tax on credit default swaps and futures and charge a leverage tax on the megabanks.

These are not radical proposals. If we adopted all of them, we would still be well below European levels of taxation. All of them together merely, mildly restore the principle that people should pay taxes on the basis of their ability to do so -- a principle that polls very well even in red states.

Gary Dorrien is Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary and Professor of Religion at Columbia University. His 16 books include "Kantian Reason and Hegelian Spirit" (Wiley-Blackwell, 2012) and the recently published "The Obama Question: A Progressive Perspective" (Rowman & Littlefield).

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