Melanie Sturm: Think Again
July 19, 2012
The French celebrated Bastille Day last week, 219 years after beheading Marie Antoinette in the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror. To this day, she’s the poster child for upper-class excess, entitlement and insensitivity – the ultimate “1 percenter.”
However, Think Again before believing every demonization you hear. In fact, though a privileged aristocrat, Marie Antoinette was not only a faithful Good Samaritan – she actually never uttered the notorious catchphrase “Let them eat cake.” Never mind – social justice was at stake!
French revolutionaries declaring “liberty, equality and fraternity” ushered in an anti-democratic period of unlimited governmental power, civil strife and economic despair. Eventually, Enlightenment principles transformed France into a vibrant democracy.
Today, France has Europe’s most state-directed economy and among its most stagnant and indebted. Prioritizing “the collective interest,” the French prefer government to free-market solutions, spending more on social welfare than any other developed country. Recently, the anti-wealth rhetoric of newly elected President Hollande – and his plans to hike taxes – made London the sixth-largest French city, to its mayor’s delight.
Similarly Enlightenment-inspired, though resentful of strong government, American revolutionaries devised a system to protect individual liberties. James Madison wrote, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men … controls on government would (not) be necessary. In framing a government, … you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”
While the French were sticking dissenters’ heads on bayonets, Americans enacted a Constitution designed to disperse authority in order to protect the moral promise in our Declaration of Independence: that every individual is born with equal and inalienable rights to life, liberty, property and the pursuit of happiness. Thus, the American Revolution facilitated the creation of the freest and most prosperous society on earth.
Over the past century, while America’s free economy boomed, attracting immigrants to our opportunity society, politicians were busy encumbering it, à la Française. They instituted the income tax, asserted extra-constitutional powers to regulate, dabbled in cronyism and instituted entitlement programs that now consume 65 percent of the federal budget. Once 3 percent of gross domestic product, government spending is now 25 percent, crowding out the private economy and producing daily deficits of $4 billion.
Consequently, we suffer French-size economic stagnation, unemployment and debt (up 50 percent since January 2009). Poverty rates are the highest since tracking began in 1959, food-stamp dependency is exploding, and the percentage of Americans with jobs is the lowest in decades. Not surprisingly, two-thirds of Americans say we’re on the wrong track and that there’s too much government power and too little individual freedom.
Meanwhile, clueless that government policies influence economic decisions, politicians now propose increasing taxes. “Taxmageddon” – the toxic mix of year-end tax increases – is causing businesses to defer hiring and investment. Even if limited to the top 2 percent with incomes of more than $250,000 (which includes small businesses responsible for half of private-sector jobs and $720 billion in earnings), tax increases would create serious recessionary headwinds while funding only 8.5 days of federal spending, per the Congressional Budget Office. This is a blueprint to cripple job creation and 23 million job-seeking Americans.
Though they agreed it was economically injurious to hike taxes in 2010 when the economy was growing at twice its current rate, tax-hikers argue that it’s about fairness while referencing the “roaring ’90s,” when rates were higher but before explosions in spending, debt and stagnation. But is it fair to increase taxes knowing the vulnerable will suffer disproportionately?
Furthermore, what is fair considering IRS data show that the top 1 percent and top 5 percent paid 37 percent and 64 percent, respectively, of 2009 federal income taxes, while the bottom half paid 2 percent? If the richest aren’t yet paying their fair share, doesn’t that suggest they don’t merit their earned success? By denying some Americans their earned success, doesn’t that undermine our opportunity society and social cohesion?
Having migrated toward French values and practices and even their anti-wealth rhetoric, it’s hard to recall our founders’ belief that government’s role is to protect – not grant – individual rights and property. To reinvigorate our free society and market economy, we need a true “fairness agenda”: a simpler tax code with fewer special-interest loopholes, no more handouts to corporate cronies, and reforms that preserve entitlement programs for future generations.
Most importantly, we must recover the private initiative that French historian Alexis de Tocqueville found exceptional in 1830s America: “In every case at the head of any new undertaking, where in France you would find the government, … in America you’re sure to find an association.”
By renewing our commitment to individual liberties and the ethic that each of us – not government – is our brother’s keeper, Americans “have it in our power to begin the world all over again,” as American revolutionary Thomas Paine wrote.
Wouldn’t our founders want us to Think Again?