One side of American politics considers the modern welfare state — a private-enterprise economy, but one in which society’s winners are taxed to pay for a social safety net — morally superior to the capitalism red in tooth and claw we had before the New Deal. It’s only right, this side believes, for the affluent to help the less fortunate.I've run up against this kind of thinking -- government as tyranny -- and it floors me. I always look at taxes as the cost of civilization. I want my taxes spent wisely and I get really peeved when I see waste, fraud, and abuse in government. But you have the same in private companies. I can understand that you can never stamp out all wastefulness. So the goal is to get the best government possible for the money taxed.
The other side believes that people have a right to keep what they earn, and that taxing them to support others, no matter how needy, amounts to theft. That’s what lies behind the modern right’s fondness for violent rhetoric: many activists on the right really do see taxes and regulation as tyrannical impositions on their liberty.
There’s no middle ground between these views. One side saw health reform, with its subsidized extension of coverage to the uninsured, as fulfilling a moral imperative: wealthy nations, it believed, have an obligation to provide all their citizens with essential care. The other side saw the same reform as a moral outrage, an assault on the right of Americans to spend their money as they choose.
This deep divide in American political morality — for that’s what it amounts to — is a relatively recent development. Commentators who pine for the days of civility and bipartisanship are, whether they realize it or not, pining for the days when the Republican Party accepted the legitimacy of the welfare state, and was even willing to contemplate expanding it. As many analysts have noted, the Obama health reform — whose passage was met with vandalism and death threats against members of Congress — was modeled on Republican plans from the 1990s.
But that was then. Today’s G.O.P. sees much of what the modern federal government does as illegitimate; today’s Democratic Party does not. When people talk about partisan differences, they often seem to be implying that these differences are petty, matters that could be resolved with a bit of good will. But what we’re talking about here is a fundamental disagreement about the proper role of government.
But those who see government as "the problem" live in a world that I don't comprehend. Government's role is to act as the glue to hold us together. Without that glue you are back to marauding bands raping, looting, and killing. You live in the crazy Hatfield & McCoy world of endless revenge killings. You live in the world of "might makes right". I don't want to live in that world. I'm happy to pay taxes to ensure that I don't live there. But rabid libertarians are convinced that there is no social glue, that all relations should be contractual. But the libertarians never explain how you enforce contracts without government. If the answer is "by force", then why bother with "contracts" because you are in a world of "might makes right" and the strongest takes what he pleases and rapes and pillages whenever and however he pleases.
To me, government is the umpire. Life is a game but should be played differently from the win-lose sports games. Life is a social game where the goal is to get everybody across the finish line in the best shape possible. Government is the civilized lining up for lifeboats when the ship is sinking and recognizing the wisdom of "women and children first" instead of he who can grab a boat first gets it. Remember watching the film Titanic? Some of those boats were less than half filled because they were seized by strong men whose only concern was to get away fast! Civilization is a game where we all try to get across the goal together.
There is a redistributive role for government because the strong can easily play a "winner take all" game of life. But that isn't fair. Libertarians may like the idea that individuals get all that they can grab, but that isn't the world I want to live in. I want those who have more to contribute more to the common pot. It is fair, but it also makes sense. As Warren Buffett admits, he wouldn't be a multi-billionaire in a hunter-gatherer society. He has amassed his fortune because his unique talents are in figuring out which companies will succeed. He can do that because he was raised in a society with wealth, with rules for corporations and stock holding. For Warren Buffett to pay more taxes is just to recognize that in this society he got more advantages given his talents that others do. He has an obligation to give back to help those who have little.
Here's how Krugman ends his essay:
Right now, each side in that debate passionately believes that the other side is wrong. And it’s all right for them to say that. What’s not acceptable is the kind of violence and eliminationist rhetoric encouraging violence that has become all too common these past two years.Go read the whole Krugman article. It is well worth your time.
It’s not enough to appeal to the better angels of our nature. We need to have leaders of both parties — or Mr. Obama alone if necessary — declare that both violence and any language hinting at the acceptability of violence are out of bounds. We all want reconciliation, but the road to that goal begins with an agreement that our differences will be settled by the rule of law.