Winning Public Support

William H. Young

Last week’s article (Taxing Small Business) cited a recent Quinnipiac poll which found that, by a margin of 65 percent to 31 percent, voters, or the public, overwhelmingly support President Obama’s demand to raise marginal tax rates on those he calls rich—households with incomes over $250,000 per year. All but one category of those polled—Democrats, Independents, men, women, whites, blacks, Hispanics, young, old, and all income levels below $250,000—supported higher taxes by margins of more than 60 percent. Only Republican voters opposed the rate hikes, by 53 percent.

The Republican argument that such a tax rate increase will damage the formation of urgently needed jobs in a slow economy—the top priority of the public in all polls—has apparently not gained traction. This has prompted the question, where is the broader message of what the Republican Party stands for?

A commentary by pollster Scott Rasmussen (“Republicans Miss the Point on ‘Fiscal Cliff’ Debate,” Rasmussen Reports, December 7, 2012) offers some specific opinions and advice:

President Obama is winning the messaging wars in the “fiscal cliff” debate largely because Republicans aren’t even in the game.

The GOP leadership in Washington keeps talking as if the issue is deficit reduction, while the president is talking about fairness….

The president has proposed a policy that addresses a perceived level of unfairness in the nation’s economic arrangements. Whether it’s the best approach doesn’t even matter because Republicans in Washington haven’t even tried to address the fairness issue. They keep arguing about economic theories….

As a result, 52 percent of voters now prefer a candidate who promises to raise rates on the wealthy, while just 34 percent favor a candidate who opposes all tax hikes….

Under Obama, Democrats talk…about how their policies will affect life in America. It’s the end result that a pragmatic nation cares about, not the policies.

For Republicans to succeed, they need to recognize that most voters don’t care about limited government. But voters care deeply about the type of society a limited government makes possible.

Republicans maintain that limited government, through low taxes, makes possible the type of society nearly everyone says they want—private sector jobs and economic growth. But Republicans have not effectively explained how low taxes on the rich actually produce jobs. The Democratic left calls for government subsidy of the less-well-off to stimulate consumption, and taxing the rich to pay for it—which is understandably appealing to many who are not wealthy. Unfortunately for Republicans, the public has little understanding of our capitalist economic system, as I explained in Exchange. And our elites—especially those in the media who filter the message to the public—have been conditioned by the ubiquitous Marxist theories that dominate higher education.

Ironically, the factual rate of income tax already paid by wealthier Americans under our progressive tax system is not considered too small in itself by most people. Rather, the perception that the rich should simply be paying more in the name of “fairness” has come to prevail.

President Obama’s policy stems from John Rawls’ concept of “justice as fairness” in A Theory of Justice (1971), as I discussed in Equality and Governance. Let’s consider a different view of justice to provide a potential foundation for a better governing philosophy.

James Madison wrote in The Federalist, No. 51 that

Justice is the end of government. It is the end of civil society. It ever has been and ever will be pursued until it be obtained, or until liberty be lost in the pursuit….In the extended republic of the United States, and among the great variety of interests, parties, and sects which it embraces, a coalition of a majority of the whole society could seldom take place on any other principles than that of justice and the general good…

Equality is not a provision of the Constitution. Philosopher Mortimer Adler explains in We Hold These Truths (1987) that the Founders left government “to establish as much equality as justice requires.” To the Founders, that was equality of opportunity. The subjective notion of fairness is not envisioned by the Constitution.

Progressivism introduced the new concept of social justice, an empirical phenomenon in which success is measured by the extent to which government creates equality of outcome. In Rawlsian justice, Madison’s general or common good is dismissed in favor of individual benefits for the least advantaged that produce equality of outcome: social or economic justice.

Harvard professor of government Michael J. Sandel points out in Justice (2009) that Rawls rejects Aristotle’s way of thinking about justice, which is giving people what they deserve, considering virtues of human nature that are worthy of reward. What might be a set of objective criteria for defining how much equality justice should require today to restore a founding order, considering Aristotle’s wisdom and reflecting the scientific perspectives of modern evolutionary psychology (see Human Nature and Western Civilization).

In Ordering America, I posited that:

Justice should embody reciprocity—sharing the cost or burden of any benefits conferred and giving back something in return. Justice should recognize a natural hierarchy of achievement and inequality and should take into account equity, any corresponding losses to others. Justice should apply to individuals, not groups. Justice should empower independence, not continuing dependence….

Justice should contemplate the provision of immaterial and material resources to create equality of opportunity—but should expect improvement in behavior and education in return. Justice in social insurance should distinguish between the deserving and the undeserving, the responsible and the irresponsible, the needy and the not-so-needy. Justice should mean the incorporation, in government programs of assistance, provisions to induce habits such as: self-responsibility as primary for well-being; self-aspiration and industriousness; self-restraint of inappropriate appetite; thrift and investment for the future; and public spirit and sharing.

Academia and our political class might consider the above “food for thought” for addressing the “fairness issue” in American governance—for returning to a just rather than an entitlement society.

Harvard professor of government Harvey Mansfield also offers some related advice in a recent interview (Sohrab Ahmari, “The Crisis of American Self-Government,” The Wall Street Journal, November 30, 2012). Speaking of conservative political practice, Mansfield commented:

Conservatives should be the party of judgment, not just of principles. Of course there are conservative principles—free markets, family values, a strong national defense—but those principles must be defended with the use of good judgment. Conservatives…shouldn’t use their principles as substitutes for intelligence. Principles need to be there so judgment can be distinguished from opportunism. But just because you give ground on principle doesn’t mean that you’re an opportunist.

Nor should flexibility mean abandoning major components of the conservative agenda—including cultural values—in response to a momentary electoral defeat. Democrats have their cultural argument, which is the attack on the rich and the uncaring. So Republicans need their cultural arguments to oppose the Democrats’, to say that goodness or justice in our country is not merely the transfer of resources to the poor and vulnerable….

Applying principles to the extent practicable in necessary political compromise is good judgment as well as good governance, as the Founders well understood. And the social outcome of principled compromise needs to be demonstrated to the public to gain its support.

House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) proposed a principled Republican compromise—raising the marginal tax rate on individuals earning more than $1 million a year—as a possible way to keep income taxes from rising on everyone on January 1, 2013, because of unproductive negotiations to avoid going over the “Fiscal Cliff.” President Obama indicated willingness to increase his threshold to $400,000. But, so far, ideological interests at both ends of the political spectrum have thwarted compromise. And other spending and debt issues remain unresolved as President Obama takes a post-election harder line. Until Republicans can make their case more effectively to the public, they will continue to have difficulty in trying to reign in progressive governance and the entitlement society.

My first article of 2013 will discuss the widespread increase since 2009 of the public belief in class conflict between the rich and everyone else.
This is one of a series of occasional articles applying the lessons of Western civilization to contemporary issues relevant to the academy.

The Honorable William H. Young was appointed by President George H. W. Bush to be Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy and served in that position from November 1989 to January 1993. He is the author of Ordering America: Fulfilling the Ideals of Western Civilization (2010) and Centering America: Resurrecting the Local Progressive Ideal (2002).

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