In its great haste

It’s not only that the tax bill is designed to make the rich richer and everyone else poorer – it’s also that they passed it without even reading it. They voted yes without knowing what they were saying yes to. Wouldn’t you think Knowing What They Are Saying Yes To would be right at the very heart of their job, which is after all to legislate? Isn’t it a pretty gross dereliction of duty for legislators to sign legislation sight unseen? Isn’t that an obvious occasion to shout hoarsely YOU HAD ONE JOB?

It’s discomfortingly similar to driving a train without bothering to slow down for curves.

In its great haste, the “world’s greatest deliberative body” held no hearings or debate on tax reform. The Senate’s Republicans made sloppy math mistakes, crossed out and rewrote whole sections of the bill by hand at the 11th hour and forced a vote on it before anyone could conceivably read it.

That should not be how any of this works. It’s more like a bank heist than legislation – except it’s a bank heist in reverse: it’s banks heisting the 99% of their customers who aren’t billionaires.

The link between the heedlessly negligent style and anti-redistributive substance of recent Republican lawmaking is easy to overlook. The key is the libertarian idea, woven into the right’s ideological DNA, that redistribution is the exploitation of the “makers” by the “takers.” It immediately follows that democracy, which enables and legitimizes this exploitation, is itself an engine of injustice. As the novelist Ayn Rand put it, under democracy “one’s work, one’s property, one’s mind, and one’s life are at the mercy of any gang that may muster the vote of a majority.”

What’s missing there? The fact that the ability to profit from “one’s work, one’s property, one’s mind” depends on that “gang” – to buy the stuff, to make the stuff, to staff the police and the courts that protect the stuff. Without the “gang” the work and the mind may be their own reward but they don’t make anybody rich.

In the 20th century, and in particular after World War II, with voting rights and Soviet Communism on the march, the risk that wealthy democracies might redistribute their way to serfdom had never seemed more real. Radical libertarian thinkers like Rand and Murray Rothbard (who would be a muse to both Charles Koch and Ron Paul) responded with a theory of absolute property rights that morally criminalized taxation and narrowed the scope of legitimate government action and democratic discretion nearly to nothing. “What is the State anyway but organized banditry?” Rothbard asked. “What is taxation but theft on a gigantic, unchecked scale?”

What is profit but organized banditry and theft? It cuts both ways. Radical libertarians should try moving to a desert island and seeing how much profit they can make there. Wealth is absolutely dependent on a vast complicated system full of people, so it’s far from self-evidently unfair for those who prosper from the system to pay back a hefty sum.

[T]he idea that there is an inherent tension between democracy and the integrity of property rights is wildly misguided. The liberal-democratic state is a relatively recent historical innovation, and our best accounts of the transition from autocracy to democracy points to the role of democratic political inclusion in protecting property rights.


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