Democrats’ Income Inequality Theme Betrays A Fatal Party Weakness

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Lewis M. Andrews Freelance Policy Writer
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What has by now struck even casual observers of the 2016 campaign is the Democrats’ unrelenting focus, not on providing some new public service, but on income redistribution. As recently as 2008, the party’s agenda included a national healthcare plan, a more aggressive EPA, a massive infrastructure program, and a substantial rewrite of George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act. But this time around any enthusiasm for some innovative government program is clearly taking second place to promises of more money in voters’ pockets

Whether the talk is of raising the minimum wage, forgiving student loans, extending unemployment benefits, higher pay for women, or, in the case of Hillary Clinton’s recent attack on drug companies, out-and-out price controls, Democrat candidates at all levels are clearly edging as close as they tactfully can to a cash-for-votes campaign.  

This may or may not prove to be a successful election strategy, but it is important to remember that leveling incomes has never been the moral justification for the party’s most organized and influential constituencies: educators, social workers, urban planners, lawyers, health care specialists, and other professionals subsidized directly or indirectly by government. The raison d’etre for this “New Class,” as the late conservative essayist Irving Kristol collectively labeled these factions, is not their ability to transfer money from the rich to the less well-off but to provide services of supposedly even greater value.

Certainly the New Class has never been averse to sprinkling a little cash on underprivileged voters; but, as a claimant to public funding itself, the liberal elite owes far more to the prestige of social science than to any redistributionist economic theory. Its salaries and benefits – well in excess of what the average voter earns – are justified by the credentialed mastery of purportedly useful techniques for alleviating poverty, crime, illiteracy, addiction, disease, pollution, and other social problems.

What the turn to redistributionist rhetoric reveals is Democrats’ awareness of just how disillusioned the country has become with the enlightened bureaucrat model of governance. Respect for the state institution with which Americans are most familiar, public education, has literally collapsed over the last decade. An astonishing 80 percent of respondents to the latest Phi Delta Kappan/Gallup annual survey on education graded the nation’s schools with a C or less. Even Sen. Elizabeth Warren, formerly an expert in bankruptcy law at Harvard, concedes that the single greatest cause of American families going broke is desperately trying to afford homes in the relatively few communities with decent public schools.

Sadly, education is not the only reason Americans have to doubt the usefulness and even honesty of programs designed by (and for) Left-leaning elites. The recent rioting in Ferguson and Baltimore, combined with the double-digit uptick in violent urban crime over the last year, has led many to question the value of expensive municipal rehabilitation programs such as HUD’s annual $6.5 billion Community Planning and Development grants.  

Similarly, the Affordable Care Act has left policyholders asking just what exactly they are getting for rapidly rising premiums and deductibles. And how, voters still wonder, could most of the nearly $1 trillion in the President’s 2009 stimulus bill, supposedly passed to finance “shovel ready” construction projects, end up in state budgets to cushion the pay and benefits of already employed public workers?

A few proposals in the Democrat party’s new income inequality agenda may well prove politically popular, if for no other reason than many Republicans seem to agree with them. But what comes after eliminating tax breaks for hedge funds and the very wealthy may not at all be what liberal elites will want to happen.

In 1956 Anthony Crosland, one of the most influential British Labour politicians and thinkers of his day, wrote a book called The Future of Socialism in which he anticipated the possibility that left wing elites might not be able to engineer social programs of the quality they were promising voters. If that turned out to be true, he said, the electorate would, and should, turn to voucher-type programs that enable citizens to bypass government bureaucrats and directly purchase their education, health care, and job training on the open market – a solution that is interestingly not much different from the current policy agenda of many conservative think tanks.

It was one thing for Democrats to push for income redistribution in the 1930s, when the establishment of government bureaucracies with benevolent names seemed a logical extension of the same philosophy, quite another today when nearly a century of liberal paternalism has so obviously disappointed. Rather than try to take money from those who have been successful, with all the downside that portends for reduced investment in new jobs, voters may well decide they have more to gain by simply eliminating the left’s costly and unproductive middlemen.