Acton Institute Powerblog

Wine caves or fox holes?

The sixth Democratic primary debate featured seven presidential hopefuls and four references to wine caves. The candidates’ rhetoric should bring the issue of wealth and political power into greater clarity than a Swarovski crystal.

The term “wine cave” lit up the internet after Senator Elizabeth Warren used cabernet as a cudgel against South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg. “Mayor Pete” held a closed-door fundraiser at the Hall Rutherford wine caves of California’s Napa Valley, giving her a line of populist attack against her surging opponent.

“The mayor just recently had a fundraiser that was held in a wine cave full of crystals and served $900-a-bottle wine,” Warren said. “Billionaires in wine caves should not pick the next president of the United States.”

In the style of Aquinas, one must acknowledge that Warren has a point: “Millionaires and billionaires” often use political donations to win legal favors, or secure lucrative government contracts, from elected officials.

Billionaires Craig and Kathryn Hall, who own the wine cave and who bundled $1.6 million for Hillary Clinton in 2016, have such a history. The Associated Press reports:

Massive contributions to Democrats in the 1990s helped secure an Austrian ambassadorship for Kathryn Hall during Bill Clinton’s second term. Risky investments by Craig Hall, the chairman and founder of the Hall Group, during the savings and loan meltdown in the 1980s culminated in an over $300 million federal bailout and the resignation of House Speaker Jim Wright of Texas, a Democrat he turned to for help.

One reason the wealthy contribute to politicians is to convince politicians to give them government handouts. Bailouts, subsidies, advantageous tax codes (and disadvantageous tax codes and regulations for their competitors) all lie within Washington’s power.

Another reason for the high rate of participation in the political process by the well-to-do came to light during an exchange over the candidates’ higher education policies. Buttigieg would means-test his taxpayer-funded college education program to exclude those who can afford tuition. Warren would fund universal “free” college tuition program through her confiscatory wealth tax.

“Look, the mayor wants billionaires to pay one tuition for their own kids,” Warren said. “I want a billionaire to pay enough to cover tuition for all of our kids.”

Warren wants the nation’s 607 billionaires to pay the tuition of its 76.4 million college students – a number certain to rise once cost is no longer an issue. (And the benefits the government gives them are sure to expand.) Politicians have an endless litany of programs they want the wealthiest people to fund.

“Millionaires and billionaires” often feel they must make political contributions out of self-defense. The most progressive candidates have plans for the nation’s wealth (not income, which they already taxed). Indeed, the candidates made 18 references to billionaires last night alone, according to the debate transcript.

Private individuals seek to leave the money they’ve earned as an inheritance to their children, rather than have it decimated for politicians to pay off their core constituencies. The more politicians discuss nationalizing their savings, the more the wealthiest elites must get involved simply to protect their right to keep the private property the IRS did not already confiscate.

Finally, there is the question of exactly why it matters that billionaires give candidates’ contributions, provided they follow the law. This point came, somewhat ironically, from Gavin Newsom, the governor of California (the more progressive state in the country) and former mayor of San Francisco (the most woke city in the U.S.).

Newsom, whose background is in the wine industry, said everyone is bound by campaign finance laws to give a maximum of $2,800 per candidate. Why should any American be excluded from supporting the candidate of his or her choice?

“I don’t know that this is healthy. Democrats are good at begrudging people,” Newsom said. He continued:

I don’t know why someone that’s had success should apologize for it, or be embarrassed by it, or now no longer be able to participate in the democratic process. When you read between the lines in those debates, forgive me, it sometimes comes across that way a little bit, and I don’t know, respectfully, that’s a good thing for our party and the country.

A video of the remarks surfaced on Twitter:

Millionaires and billionaires might feel less inclined to participate in campaign finance and lobbying activities if the government didn’t wield such an effective series of carrots and sticks. Seeking to impose new soak-the-rich schemes or create massive new government projects only increases the wealthy’s felt need to influence the system. And, since governments specializing in economic intervention are so easily manipulated by unethical players, the moral quandary of everyone’s participation in politics only increases.

It’s enough to drive a man to drink.

(Photo credit: Public domain.)

Rev. Ben Johnson

Rev. Ben Johnson is Executive Editor of the Acton Institute's flagship journal Religion & Liberty and edits its transatlantic website.