Posted by: Doug Henwood | February 28, 2020

Taxing the rich revisited

Back in October, I wrote about how taxing the rich, while a nice start, won’t be enough to fund a serious welfare state. That would require taxing the broader population seriously and we need to be honest about that. Until we are, Reagan will continue to rule from beyond the grave.

Most of that post was about the details of financing—the cheapness of our own welfare state and what it would take to get to something more Scandinavian. But the political angle deserves more attention. That was developed nicely the other day by the Financial Times columnist Janan Ganesh. As he says, “What the US left appears to want is social democracy as understood by Robin Hood. It would tax astronomical wealth to fund popular programmes. It would not ask much more of the middle or even the upper middle classes.” After pointing out that there’s just not enough money there to make it work, Ganesh writes:

[T]here is the larger issue of principle. In targeting just the richest, Democrats rather imply that a welfare state is only worthwhile insofar as someone else pays for it. It is not an inherent good. It is not a nation’s binding agent. In this sense, the Sanders and especially the Warren platform is a tacit concession to the Republican view of the world, with tax as a burden, not what the jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes defined as “what we pay for civilised society”. The Democratic appeal is less to Nordic universalism and solidarity than to the noblesse oblige of a remote overclass who will not miss the money.

I chafe at the nationalism of this passage, but bracket that for now. And bracket too the reality that the Nordics have moved away from universalism. But the central political point about universalism and solidarity is really crucial.

I understand the argument that the US public may not be ready for this kind of talk, so we should focus on Medicare for All as both massively necessary on its own and a plausible gateway drug to something more ambitious. But something has to break the hold of the neoliberal mentality: solidarity has to replace self-reliance, or we’ll compete ourself into penury and climate catastrophe. That transformation can’t happen if the argument isn’t made explicitly.

As Ganesh says, “you can sense that Mr Sanders burns to make the higher case,” but electoral reality inhibits him. Those of us not constrained by electoral reality need to start making it openly.


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