June 29, 2021 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
Our politics should revive the old democratic contempt for this country’s wannabe aristocrats
The valorization of wealth against the valorization of work.
Yesterday, I left you thinking about centibillionaire Warren Buffett’s contempt for democratic morality. The sixth richest person in the world paid 0.10 percent in federal income taxes over the course of four years, according to an analysis by ProPublica. The nonprofit news group obtained 15 years’ world of tax returns for thousands of the country’s richest people, including the top 25, which includes the Sage of Omaha. He said it’s OK for him to pay virtually nothing, because he’s giving his fortune away.
That’s contempt. In saying philanthropy is better than paying a fair share for a national government of, by and for the American people, Warren Buffett is saying, though of course without saying it out loud, that he’s separate from and unequal to American citizenry—on account of normal people paying more than their fair share for a government serving him more than it does them. But there’s another layer of contempt I want to draw your attention to today. That’s the contempt for work.
“All monopolists and holders of license and charters were aristocrats because they owed their wealth to government grant, and had not earned it by their own efforts.”
The Republicans Party has for decades been successful at portraying the poor (read: nonwhite people) as those who do not work. Because they do not work, the poor look to the government for things they won’t provide for themselves. Republican-controlled states still use work as a requisite for the accessing of relief. This requisite amounts to proving one is a worthy enough American citizen. If you can work, you can get help. If you don’t work, you don’t get help, because only worthy Americans are deserving of help. Anyone who is not worthy of citizenship is someone who is worthy of contempt.
The thing about being poor, however, is that it’s work. Hard work. This is so plainly true, I’m not going to bother proving it. The poor are rarely idle, because to be idle is to flirt with death. (That’s how close to the bone a chronically impoverished existence is.) Obviously, the poor do not earn incomes with the nonstop labor that comes with being poor, but let’s not confuse earning an income with work. If we accept the Republican view that working is a requisite for being a worthy citizen, the poor are the worthiest of all. The poor are deserving of state relief by simple dint of being poor.
But we shouldn’t accept the Republican view, because it does not apply equitably or universally. The very obscenely rich are exempted. Always. Yet they are idle. Yet they are unproductive. Yet they sure as hell take more than they give. As the ProPublica expose revealed, the income of the 25 wealthiest people is not derived from labor but from “the skyrocketing value of their assets, like stock and property.” The Republicans Party idolizes them as models for us to emulate. Tyler Cowen said that taxing capital gains (the stuff making the very obscenely rich so very obscenely rich) would be un-American. He said that instead we “should prioritize” the “valorization of wealth.”
No, the US should prioritize the valorization of work. (In this I mean any kind of work, whether it’s compensated or not.) And taxing capital gains is totally American. To be clear, being wealthy isn’t the problem. The problem is political. The very obscenely rich of the 21st century are the wannabe aristocrats that Americans feared in the early 19th century. As aristocracy threatened everyone’s liberty back then, the wannabes threaten everyone’s liberty now. But before we get to the point of using government policy to break their choke-hold, we must demonstrate a depth of contempt for the very obscenely rich that’s at least as robust and enduring as their contempt for us.
Again, it’s not because the very obscenely rich are so very obscenely rich. As Andrew Jackson said, an aristocracy is “any group that by its use of its wealth ‘exercises more than its just proportion of influence in political affairs.’ It was not wealth as such that was reprehensibly aristocratic, but wealth either gained through governmental favor or used to buy political power and influence. All monopolists and holders of license and charters were aristocrats because they owed their wealth to government grant, and had not earned it by their own efforts. They enjoyed unearned advantages” (my italics).1
The aristocrat is not only a political monopolist, he is a moral and cultural threat to the republic as well. The aristocrat is idle and shows contempt for work. The merely rich were unobjectionable, but the “idle rich” were intolerable. The great division among men in society was not between poor and rich, but between “do-somethings” and “do-nothings.” Failure to work was not merely immoral in and of itself, it also expressed a social ideology, the contempt for labor. Jacksonian democrats were acutely aware of the traditions that treated work as defiling. That is why so many insisted that by “we the people, we mean emphatically the class which labors.”2
ProPublica revealed that the very obscenely rich are so very obscenely rich because most of their money is not taxed. It is not taxed because the government does not see “the skyrocketing value of their assets, like stock and property” as income. They use this wealth to maintain their advantages politically. In other words, they “owed their wealth to government grant, and had not earned it by their own efforts. They enjoyed unearned advantages.” They should be, therefore, seen as “reprehensibly aristocratic.”
The Jacksonian democrats did not view the poor the way I do. Even so, they are useful in that they give us a history and heritage to draw from. The Republicans and their ideological comrades (think libertarian economist Tyler Cowen) want us to believe that taxing the very obscenely rich is un-American. That’s a lie. It’s the most American thing of all. The point of using the government to break their power isn’t about envy or revenge. It’s about the duty of the government to protect the citizenry from tyranny.
From Judith N. Shklar’s American Citizenship: The Quest for Inclusion, Harvard Press, 1991.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition open and available to all. Find him @johnastoehr.