Servitude Versus Republicanism: An Argument For Higher Taxes

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.
Classical plutocracy.
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.

This entry was posted in Economics, Taxes. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Servitude Versus Republicanism: An Argument For Higher Taxes

  1. Stogoe says:

    I agree with the premise and conclusions. But there’s no way out. We have been bred to believe that striking back doesn’t work, that it can’t work, that the dirty fucking hippies were completely wrong and we’d better learn to love stroking the balls, because that’s what’s ahead, and all we do is talk and talk and identify the problem and nothing can change because the ways to make things change are verboten, that they’d bring shame and dishonor to the movement and so we can’t do them.
    There’s no way out but a bullet.
    I’ll leave you to decide whose head it squicks.

  2. writerdd says:

    Oh, I knew plenty of people in the 90s who believe that. They kept hoping to get the next big break with stock options at an IPO. And so sosososo SO many people think they’ll win the lottery and such. Yes, I do know a lot of lower income and middle class suburbanites who believe this.
    I agree with the rest of your piece, but there are some of us, regardless of the fact that we have to make a living by selling ourselves, who are willing to say, “This is who I am, and I don’t give a fuck if you don’t like me.” I am one of those people and I undoubtedly lose money because of this. But I won’t kiss anyone’s ass (or stroke their balls), just to make a buck. That’s not to say that I’m some great, unusual person who would stand up to Stalin or Hitler. There’s no way to tell, but we’re not talking about escaping death here (yet?).
    I also agree with the previous commenter, in that I see no way out. I wish I did. I wish I was an optimist. But I only see things getting worse in the future.

  3. Michael Schmidt says:

    Thanks for the link. That was a great article.

  4. Pascal Leduc says:

    I find it rather foolish to say that it cant change.
    After all, it changed before. The US wasent always a democracy, nor was France and not only is Stalin not in power but heed be hard pressed to recognise Russia today.
    Though the poor are just as poor, they are far more powerfull then they have ever been. Its only a matter of time before they excersise it.
    Besides the US is in a terrifying deficit, your gonna have to raise taxes, the lower class have no money to give, the middle class is on the knife’s edge, where else are they going to get it?

  5. quitter says:

    I believe this phenomenon is called “false consciousness.” Wasn’t it described by Marx or Engels or somebody? This idea that people who will never be rich will sympathize with them based on an impossible dream of being rich themselves one day?

  6. stogoe says:

    @ Pascal Leduc
    Have we no Debtors Prisons?
    But seriously. I think you underestimate the lengths to which the aristocracy will go to keep themselves above the law.

  7. John says:

    First of all, as of 2004, the top 1% of income earners was anyone who made $328,049 or more and they alone covered 36.89% of the Federal income tax burden. I state that to illustrate that the top 1% are really not all that rich (nowhere near a Gates or a Soros!) and second of all, they do pay a large percentage of taxes. Whether they pay ‘enough’ is for another day.
    Right now I’d like to return to the income threshold of the top 1%. Many of the ‘super-rich’ are simply folks who inherited the family farm or finally sold the couple of rental properties they’ve maintained for decades barely breaking even from month to month; or perhaps they sold their own home which skyrocketed in value due to gentrification in the area they’ve lived in for decades. Now, despite the fact that they on average earn less than you and I, they are taxed as the ‘super rich’.
    I’m all for people paying their ‘fair share’. But the current system for determining what constitutes a fair share is decidedly broken and calling for ‘more taxes’ under that system is irresponsible and ignorant. If it’s a wealth tax that you seek –and it sounds like it is– then call for a wealth tax. But demanding far-reaching changes in a system you don’t fully understand –and at over 5 million words, noone really fully understands our tax system– is simply irresponsible.

  8. John says:

    And by ‘you’, I of course mean, ‘the author of the target article’!

  9. Michael Schmidt says:

    Leaving the tax system as it is is also irresponsible. Letting the health and welfare of our poorest citizens is irresponsible. But you say that nobody fully understands the tax system, and that demanding changes in it without fully understanding it is irresponsible. Given my statements and yours, we must come to the conclusion that no matter who advocates what with the tax system, everybody is irresponsible. So let’s quit calling each other names and talk about funding the things that make life good.
    Many of the examples you give for the “super-rich” are people who are going to only be taxed for capital gains, which is significantly lower than the highest tax bracket, so they aren’t “taxed as the ‘super-rich.'”

Comments are closed.