But I know it's not easy to find the time for everything, so I'll try to pick out some of the more important excerpts here:
One aspect of our re-ignited American Civil War is getting a lot of air-play. It is so-called “class war.”
That’s the tag-line ordered up by Roger Ailes. The notion: that any talk of returning to 1990s tax rates – way back when the U.S. was healthy. wealthy, vibrantly entrepreneurial and world-competitive, generating millionaires at the fastest pace in human history – is somehow akin to Robespierre chopping heads in the French Revolution’s reign of terror.
That parallel is actually rather thought-provoking! Indeed, can you hang with me for a few minutes? After setting the stage with some American history, I want to get back to the way things got out of hand during that earlier 1793 class war in France. There are some really interesting aspects I’ll bet you never knew. ...
It’s fairly obvious that the period following the Second World War was (for white U.S. males) the least class-ridden of all time. Disparities of wealth were at an all-time low and the middle class, flush with WWII savings, good wages and GI Bill-fostered competitiveness, experienced a generation of utter dominance over the American experience. A confident dominance that got woven into popular culture through TV and all other media.
Instead of the classic human social pattern — pyramid-shaped with a tiny, fierce nobility lording it over peasant multitudes — ours was diamond-shaped with a well-off middle that actually outnumbered the poor! A miracle nobody in all the past ever foresaw. Except perhaps [Adam] Smith. Certainly not Karl Marx! In fact, nothing so undermined the honey-seductive mantras of Marxism so much as the living example of the U.S. middle class. Which the whole world wanted to join.
And now the penultimate point (before getting back to 1793 France). Our post-WWII flattened-diamond pattern did not quash or undermine competitive capitalism! Not at all. In fact, never before or since has there been such fecund, vigorous entrepreneurialism as during the flattest and most “level” social order the world ever saw.
Those who proclaim these two things – social flatness and vigorous market competitiveness – to be inherent opposites, in perpetual conflict, are simply fools or historical ignoramuses — or outright liars. They are pushing the sick illogic of the zero sum game. Indeed, Adam Smith himself contended, in both Wealth of Nations and The Theory of Moral Sentiments, that a relatively flat social order — combined with lots of opportunities for the poor to get education, so the total number of competitors is maximized — can vastly increase the total number of people who get rich in the best way, by delivering innovative goods and services. ...
All the shouts about “class war” bring to mind images of rabid Jacobin mobs in 1793 hauling brave nobles and gentlemen to the guillotine. But if Rupert & co. really want us pondering that image, we owe it to ourselves to leaf back just a few pages to 1789, when the revolution began as a much more moderate thing, inspired by events across the ocean, in America.
France was broke. Louis XVI and his ministers were incompetents who deliberately squelched commerce with internal tariffs and policies that crushed innovation. The church owned much of the productive land, tax-free. So did the feudal aristocracy. Top merchants and corporations managed to wrangle exemptions too. After years of quagmire wars, poor tax revenue, bank collapses and mismanagement, Louis needed more money to stave off bankruptcy and save the country. So he summoned the Estates General.
That was the rough French equivalent of the British Parliament, but with much less authority. In fact, it had last met in 1614. But Louis was desperate. What he needed was for the first and second “estates” — the clergy and nobles — to vote themselves a temporary levy and join the third estate (the people) in paying their fair share.
That’s how it all started. The country’s leader asking oligarchs and aristocrats to pay the same rates as common folk, for a while, especially since they already owned damn near everything. The answer given by the dukes and bishops and marquiseseses? Heck no! We’re the ones keeping it all together. The managers and investors and owners and job-makers. The government can damn well keep its mitts out of our pockets. It’s our money, not the state’s.
Now you can see where I’m going with this. So I won’t spell out what happened next. ...
Across the sea, in America, a different experiment was being tried. The aristocracy over here — like Washington and Jefferson — certainly enjoyed being rich, and wanted opportunities to stay that way! But they also knew the frontier virtue satiability — the notion that getting rich is great! Economic success can both entice and propel innovation, hard work, enterprise, competitive creativity and philanthropy. But that (as Adam Smith proclaimed in the miracle year 1776) there comes a point where enough is enough… and sometimes even too much.
Hold onto your seat, because I’m about to tell you something about Washington and the others that you never knew… that they were “levellers.”
The founders started by banning primogeniture, so no family fortune could sit and accumulate, undivided, as a lordly demesne at the pyramid’s peak. Instead, they would get divided among the large numbers of children that folks had then — an intentional act of “social engineering” and outright “levelling” and don’t you for a moment think otherwise! They also seized the assets of the Tory lords and even neutral absentees and distributed them to the masses. And they made homesteading easy, with laws that favored Yeoman citizens. (All right, some of the lands they seized belonged to native American tribes – I never called these guys perfect, just smart, with a goal of not repeating the historical mistakes they loathed. Sure, they proceeded to make others.)
Never heard of these “levelling” acts by the founders? Heck, even liberals have forgotten them. Or they’ve become used to simply ceding Washington and Adam Smith to the blustering right, without even putting up a fight. Stupid-lame liberals.
The point is that we never had the kind of violent class war that erupted in France, because our elites were smart enough to avoid it! After the primogeniture and distribution and land grant tricks started to fade along with the frontier, we entered a dangerous Gilded Age when the pyramid shape began re-emerging and Marx rubbed his hands over the growing urban proletariat….
…but even among the titans of the 1890s, there were men who could see. “I would rather leave my son a curse than the almighty dollar,” quoth Andrew Carnegie, who was the Warren Buffett of his day. And our agile nation came up with moderate, progressivist solutions like anti-trust laws, that staunched class war without ruining capitalist enterprise. That kept the goose alive, to keep laying golden eggs. ...
And you – yes, you – need to start asking questions:
– like what degree of wealth disparity would you find discomforting? ...
– or ask what it means when Fox says the top families do pay a lot of money in taxes, despite paying at very low rates. Can you do the simple algebra in your head, divide and put in an equal sign and draw the obvious conclusion? If they pay vast amounts, even at tiny rates… doesn’t that mean they are getting most of the money in the first place? And that’s supposedly a reason for you to… shrug?
– or ask who is financing the propaganda that you watch? When simplistic tag lines are ordered up at Fox News by Rupert Murdoch, Roger Ailes and Prince Waleed, and they are parroted within hours by every politician and talking head on the right, is it time to ask “is this the conservatism of Barry Goldwater and William F. Buckley, any longer?” What do these New Lords get out of teaching you to hate every American elite of science, intellect or skill… while demanding that you ignore the one elite that threatens everything we love? Theirs?
– for the first time in American history, we went to war and the rich refused to help pay for it. Isn’t patriotism an issue all the time, and not just when you (or Glenn Beck) pick or choose?
More important: doesn’t this start sounding a whole lot like what the nobles did on the east side of the Atlantic in 1789… and not at all like the smarter elites did in the west?
There's more there, including good stuff about Franklin D. Roosevelt. I really do recommend you read it all. But I just want to add one thing:
As Brin states, the French Revolution started out as a relatively moderate thing. They were, indeed, inspired by America's example. But the revolution became more and more extreme. The fanatics took control and, after that, you really couldn't be too extreme.
Moderates were considered traitors and went to the guillotine. But as the mob rushed to the far-left, even the extremists struggled to be extreme enough. The same people who executed the moderates soon were considered too moderate themselves and were also sentenced to death. When extremists take control, it quickly becomes impossible to be too extreme.
Doesn't this remind you of the Republican Party these days? Of course, it's been rushing to the far-right, rather than the far-left. And so far, no one has literally lost his head. But in today's GOP, you just can't be too extreme, and the worst thing you can be called is a moderate. Moderates, in fact, have been drummed out of office - even though they were "moderate" only by the standards of the complete loons of the GOP base.
At every step, you wonder how much further to the right they will go. Now, they're even talking about dismantling Social Security and Medicare, not just the Department of Education and the EPA. Is there any limit? Republican leaders run to the right in a desperate attempt to stay ahead of the mob they, themselves, created. And there is quite literally no way for a Republican leader to be too extreme, too fanatic, too far right. In today's GOP, the only sin is moderation.
That didn't turn out well for France, and it's not going to turn out well for America, either. But how much damage will they do us? That's the question.
PS. My thanks to Jim Harris for the link!