The inequality myth

James Poulos Daily Caller Columnist
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Hoping to recapture the grandiosity of his first campaign, President Obama went to Kansas to tell us what’s the matter with Kansas, boldly awakening the values-conscious middle class to the alleged fact that economic inequality is the defining issue of our time. (By strange coincidence, there’s also a presidential election coming.)

But his address hit false note after false note. Why? He’s peddling a dangerous inequality myth.

Even Arianna Huffington grumbled that he should have made his case two years earlier. Back then, it wasn’t quite so obvious that the president’s most carefully cultivated constituency is a political coalition formed between the poorest of the poor and the richest of the rich.

It’s not that Obama makes a poor spokesperson for the idea that economic inequality is real and growing. It’s that he makes such a terrible champion of the principle that that’s bad.

Without the people at the bottom of the financial pyramid and the ones in the gleaming eye that floats at the top, Obama is toast.

Today, many people are more sensitive than ever to inequalities of any size. So the president thinks he can claw back some of the middle and working classes by promising to lift up the wretched at the expense of the wealthy. Tightening that gap, he imagines, will get Americans outside his core constituency to feel like they’re part of something bigger than themselves. And sure enough, they will be. It’s called big government.

What Obama won’t say is that his transparent desire to redistribute wealth for its own sake is carefully calibrated never to bring real change. It will never dislodge our rather un-American overclass and underclass, because both a microscopic elite and a huge mass of wards of the state serve the interests of big government in general and the Democratic Party in particular.

Disappointingly, Republicans have failed to capitalize on this shameful hypocrisy. Instead of talking honestly about the real inequality problem we do face, they let themselves look like they think America’s problems can be cured by allowing America’s producers to keep more of their own money in exchange for producing even more.

But even an economy that lurches forward again won’t touch the real inequality problem we face. It isn’t measured in income. It’s measured in independence.

And it won’t go away until the political power concentrated at the national level is so diminished that the most economically powerful and the most economically powerless will stop conspiring to put government in charge of ever more aspects of American life.

Money is not the culprit, either, in the way that it’s portrayed. The call to “get the money out of politics” is beginning to sound like a clever way of convincing voters that we should eliminate the only intermediary currently blunting the force of a direct relationship between big government and the American people. At least the moronic money game tangles up the government in its own inefficiency and waste.

Of course, “the money” will stay in politics until the mint is closed and the Fed is exiled to Greenland. The well-intentioned claim that we should still work hard now to shut down crony capitalism ought to remind us that crony capitalists, like all government dependents, ultimately measure their success in public dollars, not private ones. The perverse incentives typifying the Obama era lead to an equally perverse logic: if you’re rich enough or poor enough, the government will take care of you.

As the dire situation unfolding in Europe warns us, this symbiotic relationship between the government, the ultra rich and the ultra poor can lead to a collapse of political authority — first in the hearts of the beleaguered citizens left out of the cycle of subsidy and control, and then in the minds of the dependents of all classes who have no use for a government that cannot keep the euros, or dollars, flowing.

Obama’s response to the anxiety of our middle class is contempt for those who dare think of government-imposed security as a step down — and an endless supply of promises and programs for those willing to embrace the dependency closing in around them.

It’s too bad that Republicans have been at the front of the line in subsidizing the middle class — for electoral reasons, yes, but primarily out of an elite-driven fear that today’s average American might just give up on the hard work of upright living if upright living is not just its own but its only reward. Republican complicity in spreading the culture of government dependency has compounded the challenge of defeating Obama.

The president is actually right that a pall of economic passivity is creeping across the fruited plain. What he fails to understand is that it is being caused by the frenzy of national political activity that he himself has so radically accelerated and centralized — with plenty more to come, if he wins his way on health care and the other massive matters for which the government control of health care will inevitably be the blueprint.

But Professor Obama comes from Chicago, a city whose apparently antithetical manias for the economics of Adam Smith on the one hand and the economics of Karl Marx on the other have evidently been spliced in our president’s head to create a real monster: the idea that the purpose of politics is simply to represent economic interests, and that the only thing policy can really do is subsequently reallocate resources.

President Obama is freaking out over the problem of diminished activity and the arrest of America’s commercial spirit. What he cannot accept is that the frenetic effort he demands is the product of long-cultivated habits of non-economic activity, for which the flogging or bribing of producers cannot compensate.

The material rewards of liberty cannot be commanded or controlled. If Americans are prevented from freely associating for the purpose of regulating and overseeing their own affairs, yet expected to come together to “out-innovate the world,” ever-deeper malaise will be the result — in the White House, first of all.

James Poulos is a columnist at The Daily Caller, a contributor at Ricochet, and a commentator in print, online, and on television and radio. Recently he has been the host of The Bottom Line and Reform School on PJTV and a fellow of the Claremont Institute. His website is jamespoulos.com and his Twitter handle is @jamespoulos.