Thomas Geoghan has an excellent article about the need to raise taxes. He makes a very important point: how we tax ourselves defines who we are. Geoghan writes (italics mine):
Sociologists claim someone making $50,000 a year, or $25,000 a year believes: I can be like Gates or Soros. Or my kids will be.
It’s burned into our brains that Americans believe this.
I have a question: In your own life, do you know anyone out there in a suburb with a mortgage who believes this? I sometimes go out to barbecues and parties with clients, and I think of “businessmen” and guys in sales and ask myself, “Do they believe that?”
No, not for themselves. Or their kids. Usually they’re disappointed in their kids. Over age 40, people know they aren’t going anywhere. Under 40, from what I can tell, the young are even more bitter.
Yet they’re terrified to tax the rich, and far more terrified on the whole than their ancestors of the New Deal and post-New Deal used to be. So why, if they have everything to gain from taxing the rich, are they so terrified?
Because the more money the rich take from us, the more it changes our moral character–we lose the courage it takes to engage in self-government.
I borrow an old idea of the French, writers like Rousseau, Voltaire, Tocqueville, Guizot and many others: They believed that the particular “constitution” or form of government–monarchy, aristocracy, etc.–literally shapes our personality. Citizens have one type of personality under Louis XV, a different under George III. In 1760, I could turn to my French peasant wife and say: “Oh, the Bourbon monarchy has no effect on me.” But in a sense it would affect my whole personality. Or let’s say it’s 1939, and I’m hypothetically living under Stalin. At this point, if I am a normal, weak human being, I might secretly hate Stalin, but I’d be also quite willing at times, despite myself, to rat on a friend, or even turn in my wife.
Though I’d like to think not, I’d probably take on the personality that lets me fit in to Stalin’s way of doing things.
Now it’s 2006, and I’m an American. We don’t have monarchy, or aristocracy–but it’s not a democracy. Most of the time, as in the latest election, most of us don’t vote. Most of us don’t know the names of our local candidates for Congress.
Even if you do know the names, don’t think you’re better than the rest. You are still living under a form of government where most people don’t vote. Even if you’re different, our collective disconnect with our own government has some bearing on your moral character as well.
Aristotle would not call us a democracy. Or a republic, really. I believe Aristotle and the Greeks would describe the America of this century as a plutocracy. The top 1 percent has nearly all the wealth. That’s our form of government.
I take on the personality that lets me fit into a plutocracy. I’m not the owner of a business or a farm. I’m not a member of a labor union. I’m a servant, or a salesman. I sell myself to people in one way or another. In a plutocracy, everyone is a salesman. Everyone is a waiter. We live off not wages we negotiate but on commissions and tips. In this new economy, we don’t even see how our character is changing, or how we are constantly selling ourselves for bigger tips: “I hope you like me.” But it’s turning us effectively into waiters in restaurants. There’s a problem with waiters, which George Orwell notes: They identify with the diners, and they vote for the right. Orwell hated waiters. He liked the back of the house. That’s where the minorities and foreign workers are.
The white males in the country–and I use this as a term of art to include people of all races–are working tables in the front.
Unlike Orwell, I like waiters. It’s partly because in the America of 2006, I have had to adapt my own personality to the plutocracy we’re in. But as much as I try to sell myself and please others, I wonder what it’s doing to me, and so many others. If we’re spending all our time trying to figure out how to please the rich, how to seduce them into giving us money, how to say, “I’m Bob, I’m your waiter for the evening”– if we even stoop to touching our customers on the shoulder, so we can get an even bigger tip–we aren’t likely to be the people to confront them politically.
Many a sociologist has it wrong: It’s not that I expect that I or my children will live like the Super Rich. It’s rather that I have to like the Super Rich–I have no choice but to like them if I want a big tip.
And as someone who works for a nonprofit organization, I can definitely relate to this:
Even the left, even the far left, is like this: So far as I can tell, activists spend all their time courting the foundations, and like waiters in restaurants, stroking, touching people, so they can get a bigger grant. In terms of the moral character, we on the left are no better than the politicians are.
There’s another name for what Geoghan is describing: servitude. It is, in the long run, not compatible with a democratic republic. Check out the whole article.