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The tyranny of the contented.

Don't blame Bush and Reagan for that screw-the-poor ethic. Blame yourself

Since the advent of the current recession, the Reagan and Bush administrations have endured a fair amount of criticism for cutting welfare and similar expenditures while lowering taxes to the special benefit of the rich. To opponents, these fiscal policies seem to betray a deficiency in compassion: a cruel diffidence toward the needy and oversolicitousness toward the privileged that will soon prove the Republican Party's political undoing. Yet as critics probe Republican psyches, they miss a political point. The rationale for the fiscal policies of the past decade lies not in "indifference" or political error, but in a current truth of American taxation--the marked asymmetry between who pays and who receives. Those pursuing aid-the-rich, hurt-the-poor policies have been reacting faithfully to the will of their constituency: the majority of voting Americans who are economically and socially contented.

In past times, the economically and socially fortunate were, as we know, a small minority. Now in the United States, the favored are numerous--greatly influential of voice and a majority of those who vote. This, and not the division of voters between political parties, is what defines modern American political behavior. This, and not the much celebrated circumstance of charismatic political leaders and leadership, is what shapes--and limits--modern politics. Thanks in no small part to the new power of the contented, our collective view of what government can and should do for its people is being continually narrowed. Thus homelessness, hunger, inadequate education, drug affliction, and poverty in general are being continually sanctioned by active democracy.

For a considerable, though by no means the entire, range of public services, the supporting taxes fall on the contented; the benefits accrue to others. In particular, the fortunate in the polity find themselves paying through their taxes the public cost of the functional underclass, and this, in the most predictable of economic responses, they resist. There follows a highly understandable resistance to all taxation. Yet, unfortunately, the services these taxes pay for are elemental to the lives of the poor--and increasingly, the poor alone.

In the United States, as in other industrial lands, the poorest people must rely on the government for publicly subsidized shelter. In no economically advanced country--a sadly neglected matter--does the market system build houses the poor can afford. There is also reliance on the government in the United States for food stamps and the welfare and child support that prevent starvation. The comfortably situated provide their own shelter and food as a matter of course.

In less marked manner, the same is true of education. Whereas the poor have no alternative to public schools, the more fortunate pay separately, in effect, for their own. These are either the better-financed public schools of the affluent suburbs or private schools. In the latter case, the fortunate have to pay twice, and one of their more plausible reactions is the recurrent suggestion that they should be remitted the equivalent of the taxes they pay for public education in a voucher usable for private schools of their choice. Thus they would escape the burden of the double educational cost. By convention, however, this is not put so rudely; freedom of choice, liberty, the wise privatization of public activity--these are the most frequently heard justifications.

The perverse relationship between taxes and public services goes further. The poor need public parks and recreational facilities; in the suburbs these become of diminished importance, and the very affluent have and enjoy private clubs, golf courses, and tennis courts. The poor need public libraries; the more fortunate can buy books or have libraries of their own. Many of the poor live in the inner cities, where police presence is necessary every day; in the suburbs such protection is of less urgency and, in any case, is specific in its services to those who comfortably reside there. For those at yet higher levels of income, there are private security guards, the number of whom now exceeds the number of publicly employed policemen in the United States. Less ostentatiously there are doormen and alarm systems to protect the occupants of the better urban apartment buildings.

Similarly, public hospitals and other health services at public cost are essential for those of lesser income; the comfortable have access to private hospitals and health insurance. As with the schools, they must, in the end, pay for both public and their own private health care.

Selective service

From the foregoing comes the broad attitude toward taxes in our time and, in great measure, toward government in general. The fortunate pay; the less fortunate receive. The fortunate have political voice, the less fortunate do not. It would be an exercise in improbable charity were the fortunate to respond warmly to expenditures that are for the benefit of others. So government, with all its costs, is pictured as a functionless burden--which for the fortunate, to a considerable extent, it is. Thus any proposed increase in tax revenues is not seen as going to necessary and legitimate purposes of the state; rather, it is viewed as an appropriation by those whose commitment is to expenditure per se. It will be squandered by the dedicated "big spenders."

Yet the reaction of members of the contented majority to the costs and purposes of government is also highly selective. There are some public services and functions that have their approval. Defense is the clearest case, serving in the past as the obvious antidote to their deep, even paranoiac fear of communism. Now, with the collapse of that presumed enemy, the industries involved still draw on their own indigenous political power. Similarly, support to failing financial institutions--first the great savings and loan rescue and later that of the commercial banks--is a fully defended function of government, however evident the financial extravagance and larceny that made it necessary.

It is not coincidental, of course, that many of these expenditures--like Social Security--exist largely to preserve the incomes of the contented. And the substantial role of the government in subsidizing the well-being of the majority deserves more notice than it gets. Where the impoverished are concerned, government support and subsidy are seriously questioned as to need and effectiveness of administration and as to their adverse effect on morals and working morale. This, however, is not true of government support to the comparatively well-off. By Social Security pensions or their prospect, no one is thought damaged, nor, as a depositor, by being rescued from a failed bank. The comparatively affluent can withstand the adverse moral effect of being subsidized and supported by the government; not so the poor.

By and large, then, the contented majority views government expenditures with distrust--such distrust that raising taxes to pay for them has become a political taboo. The Reagan administration made opposition to tax increases and, in fact, a substantial reduction in income taxes a centerpiece of its agenda. And Bush was no less specific: His pre-election promise not to raise taxes was the best publicized of his policy commitments.

Both men saw a restriction on taxes as a design for restraining government activity as a whole, their favored exceptions apart. Both, it is clear, were responding not, as some thought, to a personal political view; they were correctly interpreting the highly evident preference of the contented electoral majority. This constituency warmly supported Reagan; when Bush seemed even marginally to defect from its interests by accepting a small tax increase in 1990, he was excortiated. The political damage was so severe that he actually apologized for the decision two years later.

The big shill

Because the contented are a majority, Democratic presidential candidates must be no less acquiescent to their desires than the Republicans. No action on behalf of the poor--improved welfare payments, more low-income housing, general health care, better schools, drug rehabilitation--can be taken without feeling the backlash of those comfortable Democrats opposed to higher taxation. Accordingly, in a dominant Democratic view, reference to such efforts must be downplayed or, if necessary, avoided. Liberals, as they are known, are especially warned: Whatever their personal opinion as to the larger well-being or the longer future, they must be practical. If they want to win, they must not threaten the community of contentment.

That is surely why all recent presidential elections have been fought between exponents of the broad position of the contented majority. In 1988, for example, Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis largely abandoned the issues that might be adverse to the culture of contentment and made "competence" a central theme. Not surprisingly, the traditional and seemingly more reliable exponent of comfort won. Many decades ago, President Truman observed that when there was a choice between true conservatives and those in pragmatic approximation thereto, the voters would always opt for the real thing.

In short, voters are correct to perceive that the difference between the two parties on the immediately affecting issues is inconsequential. And politicians are justified in fearing that running for office promising better service to those most in need is an exercise in political self-destruction. Thus, until the disenfranchised vote or revolt, the tyranny of the contented is ensured--and the grim implications are ours to live with.
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Title Annotation:the majority of the voters
Author:Galbraith, John Kenneth
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Jun 1, 1992
Words:1528
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