February 3 2012
Why is it that so many members of the New Ruling Class, those highly-credentialed members of the elite who live in tony enclaves such as Washington, D.C.’s Cleveland Park, or Park Slope in New York, believe in higher taxes, even though they are the very people who will take a hit?
They might pat themselves on their expensively-clad backs and think it’s because they are more altruistic than less enlightened citizens. But it isn’t that at all. Heather Wilhelm puts her finger on why elites love higher taxes in a review of Charles Murray’s new book, Coming Apart.
Elites love higher taxes because they believe that government, not the kinds of civic associations Alexis de Tocqueville found and praised in his journey through the young United States, should be the primary way to help poorer citizens improve their lot. As Wilhelm points out, this is actually counterproductive, but it makes some people—the elites—feel good:
Unfortunately, in today's political landscape, the idea that government "help" can sap human virtue is a radical concept. "Those in the new upper class who don't care about politics don't mind the drift toward the European model," Murray points out, "because paying taxes is a cheap price for a quiet conscience -- much cheaper than actually having to get involved in the lives of their fellow citizens."
Libby has already blogged about Murray’s new book, as have I. Like Wilhelm, we’ve both noted the “class gap” that Murray explores. It is a gap based not just on wealth but on values. We have an elite that, after some experimentation in the 1960, has come to realize that children are best reared in homes where the parents are married, and an underclass where such old-fashioned notions no longer hold sway.
Coming Apart is a must-read for many reasons, but its main value comes from its insistence on drilling down beyond materialism. In a book ostensibly about class, Murray spends much of his time exploring the things that really matter in life, fighting against the presumption that we're here to merely pass our days as pleasantly as possible.
"If we ask what are the domains through which human beings achieve deep satisfactions in life -- achieve happiness," Murray writes, "the answer is that there are just four: Family, vocation, community, and faith." The advancement of the welfare state, he argues, results in the slow gutting of these domains, as well as personal responsibility, which are "the institutions through which people live satisfying lives." This cultural disintegration has had a disastrous human cost for the working class. It's a cost that many in the new upper class don't experience or understand.
I gave Mitt Romney a reading assignment yesterday. Maybe I should put Coming Apart on his list:
Even the American political right, often caricatured as welfare-bashers, can fall into this trap: Republican front-runner and much-maligned rich guy Mitt Romney recently stepped in it by declaring he wasn't worried about the very poor, because, well, "we have a very ample safety net." Ah, then! Nothing to worry about. Everything's fine!
Ironically, the real way to help the underclass is to become judgmental and say, "No, raising kids in a single-parent home is not the way to go." This may be harder for our broad-minded elites, who, fortunately for their children do practice what they refuse to preach, than paying taxes.
It higher taxes helped poorer people as much as they help elites feel good, there might be some justification. But big government harms the poor. It doesn’t take a chunk out of their wallets, but it does take a chunk out of the store of moral values.