Acton Institute Powerblog

The political futility of moral and economic arguments today

Few things are more abundant – and durable — than human stupidity. In the universe of the feelings that govern the behavior of men and women only fear has a greater rootedness in the collective psyche. Seeing so many engaged in the debate on confiscatory tax rates proposed by leftists to finance the latest liberal programs that they believe will save the world, what strikes me most are those on the right trying to refute this policy according to economic and moral arguments. In other words, the first thing that the right does is understate human stupidity.

American society has been sliding toward collectivism since at least the New Deal, but the trend has accelerated dramatically in the last decade. Nowadays, Americans cheerfully support taxing big fortunes, making the rich pay their fair share. Of course, this is a revanchist policy, but it is not out of touch with reality.

The hatred of others’ wealth is the last manifestation of the democratization of society. The more democratic a society becomes, the more egalitarian the mindset of people becomes. The popular clamor, therefore, is to make everyone the same no matter how. The Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset wrote much about this phenomenon of the massification of life, the atomization of man and the destruction of everything that sounds aristocratic. No one paid much attention. Likely, we will learn in the hard way that everything that begins with taxation and regulation sooner or later ends with guillotines. Severed heads are the only way to ensure equality between men.

Many American thinkers understood this issue. Fighting the egalitarian mentality was the Old Right’s priority. H. L. Mencken, Albert Jay Nock, Frank Chodorov, Isabel Paterson, John T. Flynn, and Garet Garrett fought tirelessly to prevent egalitarianism from becoming the new Americanism. Seventy years later, I can say without fear of being wrong that they lost this dispute. And they lost not because of the left, but thanks to the right — or what is called right in modern America.

Before Russell Kirk, as Murray Rothbard observed, the American right identified itself as libertarian or classical liberal. The icon of the right Sen. Robert A. Taft (1889-1953), Republican of Ohio, was a self-declared liberal. After Kirk’s The Conservative Mind was published in 1953, cultural conservatism became part of American right-wing philosophy. Thus, the post- World War II American conservative movement was a fusion of libertarianism, cultural conservatism, and anti-communism.

Everything began to change, paradoxically, with the arrival of Ronald Reagan to the White House. Internationalist liberals, disciples of Woodrow Wilson, disillusioned with Jimmy Carter and attracted by Reagan’s hardline anti-communism, left the Democratic Party and moved to the GOP. Such disillusioned liberals are the so-called neoconservatives who in a matter of years took over of the conservative movement and reshaped it as a Wilsonian liberal movement, concerned with democracy and equality.

As wrote Paul Gottfried, the National Review — a former outlet of cultural conservatives —  elevated some of Kirk’s intellectual opponents, such as the  Jacobin Harry Jaffa, into conservative icons. Jaffa stressed “equality as a conservative principle” and cruelly mocked Kirk whenever the occasion presented itself. Reagan biographer Steven Hayward went even further and praised Reagan for having saved “conservatism” from a fate worse than death — that is, from “having gone in the direction of Kirk, toward a Burkean tradition-oriented conservatism.”

Since the American political debate has been reduced to a struggle between neoconservatives / neo-liberals on one side and the cultural left on the other — trying to prove which one best represents the legacy of the French Revolution– nothing could be less surprising than seeing the more radical side gain ground. The hysterical rhetoric of Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are more a logical unfolding of this new political reality than anomalies.

Hysteria, as the Austrian philosopher Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn and the Polish psychiatrist Andrej Lobaczewski taught, is the essence of left-wing thinking. Leftists embrace nihilism and anarchy as a philosophy of life because the ideological content matters little. That is why the cultural left can promise things for free without worrying about where the money to fund their policies will come from. Even in countries with a welfare state more generous than the American, politicians are concerned with controlling public debt and balancing the budget. In the United States, these considerations do not seem to be an issue.

Let’s turn to the high tax rates matter. To try to persuade someone based on economic and moral arguments is a waste of time. Nothing is more proven than the unfeasibility of socialism at least since Ludwig von Mises demonstrated the impossibility of economic calculation in socialist economies. This has never been refuted. Not to mention that every time the government intervenes in any area of the economy, everyone loses – just look at the Obamacare. Even so, socialism has never been as popular as it is now in the United States. Moral arguments are also irrelevant. In a democratic and egalitarian society, the measure of morality is the measure of equality.

Needless to say, that this very policy is championed by the very rich. They are the ones that have been funding progressive initiatives across the world. Ralph Nader’s romance Only the Super Rich Can Save Us is a self-fulfilling prophecy about how people like Warren Buffett will turn America in a socialist nation. If this socialist experience did not end up increasing rather than reducing the power of the very rich, I would love to see the moneyed ones putting their wealth where their mouths are.

So, what can be done? Arguments based on reason cannot penetrate a hysterical mind. Human political behavior, as the Italian sociologist Vilfredo Pareto wrote, is based on irrational attitudes that can be more or less articulated in a coherent policy by an elite. Since the American elite embraced collectivism, the only way out is to appeal to a powerful feeling: fear.

Taxation is not about distribution of wealth, but about power. According to the French philosopher Bertrand de Jouvenel, taxes are not a transfer of income from the ones that have to the ones that have not, but a transfer of power from individuals to government bureaucracy. High rate taxes are one of the most efficient means to consolidate once and for all the overwhelming power of the managerial state over the individual. The German theorist Karl Wittfogel gave the perfect explanation of this strategy: Perfect totalitarianism does not need direct control to ensure that the population will adopt certain behaviors; indirect control — like control over money — is much more efficient. Once the managerial state has to deal with a rebellion, the flow of money will be cut off, and the rebel group will starve. “Wherever the government controls the means of production,” wrote Leon Trotsky, “to make opposition means to die of starvation.”

Neither formal law nor high ideals can contain the movement of power concentration; only power can contain power. The only force that counts in this Iron Age we live in is the human ambition for power, on the one hand, and the fear that other humans have of losing power, on the other hand. So far, those who desire power have been winning thanks to the myth of upward mobility and increasing personal freedom propagated by democracy. However, never before in human history has despotism been so efficient and so well accepted by the majority of the population.

Moral and economic arguments will never be useful in convincing the public that high taxes are wrong. In a society that holds to firm beliefs in the superiority of equality and democracy, right and wrong are a matter of quantity and not quality. To prove that someone is wrong amounts to showing intellectual superiority and this is not acceptable. Nonetheless, fear remains the best deterrent of reckless action. In this respect, the logic of Thomas Hobbes is unbeatable. Fear is what pushes the man from barbarism to civilization; once civilization is established, man forgets fear and society degenerates into anarchy until a Bonapartism or a Caesarism rises and reestablishes the lost order.

It seems that Donald J. Trump sensed this little truth. His first victory was driven by a promise to save America from chaos through a wall, and his re-election campaign is likely to have the threat of socialism and infanticide as its central themes. I believe that one’s predominant concern for his own neck is common to humankind. Nobody wants to end his days being beheaded by an Ivy-league student who thinks that Ocasio-Cortez is a new Espinoza.

From my modest perspective, things will get much worse before they start to improve. I hope, that in the end, I can give the same answer that the Marquess of Mirabeau gave when asked about what he had done during the French Revolution: “I survived.”

Homepage picture – Ink drawing on manuscript offered by Thomas Hobbes to Charles II – WikiCommons.

Silvio Simonetti

Silvio Simonetti is a Brazilian lawyer, graduated in international affairs from the Bush School at Texas A & M University. He is currently a Research Fellow at the Acton Institute. Silvio loves history and the Catholic Church.