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The Attack On "Redistribution"

This item by Ed Kilgore is cross-posted from The New Republic, where it appeared on August 31.

It's becoming more obvious each day that the conservative assault on Barack Obama's legislative agenda, including his incrementalist efforts towards universal health coverage, isn’t much about the details. It is, instead, a counter-revolutionary campaign to revive 1980s-era middle-class resentments of particular beneficiaries of government social programs. Beneath the hysterical talk about Obama's "socialism" or the "Democrat Socialist Party," conservatives are actually revolting against the ancient targets of the New Deal and Great Society, and indeed, against the very idea that “interference” with the distributional implications of free markets is ever morally legitimate.

Consider a long, classic column published at National Review last week by the Hoover Institution’s Victor Davis Hanson, entitled "Obama and Redistributive Change." It’s an angry screed against the egalitarian underpinnings of progressive politics, past, present and future. It goes over-the-top in suggesting that Obama is determined to wipe out absolutely every distinction in wealth and status among Americans. But the self-righteous fury against any "redistributive" activity by government seems perfectly genuine, representing as it does a rejection of virtually every way of ordering society other than laissez-faire capitalism:

When radical leaders over the last 2,500 years have sought to enforce equality of results, their prescriptions were usually predictable: redistribution of property; cancellation of debts; incentives to bring out the vote and increase political participation among the poor; stigmatizing of the wealthy, whether through the extreme measure of ostracism or the more mundane forced liturgies; use of the court system to even the playing field by targeting the more prominent citizens; radical growth in government and government employment; the use of state employees as defenders of the egalitarian faith; bread-and-circus entitlements; inflation of the currency and greater national debt to lessen the power of accumulated capital; and radical sloganeering about reactionary enemies of the new state.

Hanson is clearly looking beyond our current political debates at much of the history of civilization, and it infuriates him. But if Obama’s health care reform efforts represent a drive to "enforce equality of results," what existing government program can’t be described the same way?

Social Security is redistributive. Medicare is redistributive. Public education is redistributive. Public investments in highways, bridges, dams, and other infrastructure are most definitely redistributive. The land reforms that accompanied the rise of every society, dating back to feudalism, are inherently and overtly redistributive. Even defense spending is redistributive, insofar as the benefits of national security are rarely captured by current taxpayers.

Beyond government and politics, it’s not only "socialists" who have embraced “redistributive” thinking. The Hebrew lawgivers and prophets; Jesus Christ; Mohammad--all were blatant redistributionists. All denied that wealth or status was invariably the product of productivity and virtue, and rejected the idea that redistribution was theft.

If Hanson and the many conservatives who so often sound like him want to openly take the posture that much of American--not to mention, world--history is a long, disastrous saga of tyranny in the pursuit of "enforced equality," they are free to do so. But they should at least acknowledge that the rage against Barack Obama is really just displaced rage at democracy; at the mild forms of collective social action embraced by most Americans during the last century; at the longstanding policy positions of both major political parties; and at many of the very people they are calling upon to kill Obama’s agenda--including Social Security and Medicare beneficiaries, people with government-protected mortgages, farm-price-support recipients, military veterans, and public employees tout court. At an absolute minimum, Hanson should rush to publish a column savaging Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele for trying to position the GOP as the Party of Medicare this last week.