Personalized Founding Fathers

Argument and debate in the 21st Century is a tricky task; make a point against certain people, and they will quickly pretend they were arguing something completely different. Arguing the Biblical validity of gay-bashing, I might cite literally thousands of verses from the Bible that every Christian would ignore (we don’t sacrifice mules or stone our wives anymore). The knowledgeable Christian would then point to the New Covenant that Jesus brought, to which I would respond by pointing to the fact that Jesus never, ever mentioned homosexuality (if we are to believe those tricky liberals, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John). The Christian would then ignore his own Jesus argument in favor of St. Paul (it isn’t immediately apparent that Paul of Tarsus had anything to do with the New Covenant), and consider the debate settled.

I had, for a long time, believed that this form of debate (previously found only in discussions with three year olds), was the specialty of Evangelicals only. Oh how wrong I was. Macroeconomics to include, sadly, the entirety of the mainstream media, is dominated by this form. Our national response to the Great Recession, an event created by the marriage of an unregulated debt market to reckless private debt, has been marred by the circular arguments of macroeconomic three year olds. History tells us that the federal government must spend to fill the demand hole, the three year olds respond that debt caused the crisis. We remind them that it was private debt, which is a very different animal than public debt held in our own currency. They trot out the ambiguous “fiscal discipline is the solution to all” argument. They then throw fiscal discipline under the bus whenever it runs afoul of tax cuts or military spending.

Three year olds, you see, always want to avoid their veggies, eat their dessert, and stay up past bedtime. If they don’t get their way, they whine about fairness before talking nobly about what our (supposedly) better and wiser Founders had to say about the world. And that is where the two mentalities run in parallel.

The Constitution, The Federalist, and the writings of various other authors and patriots have become Biblical annexes; documents to be cited as literal truth, utterly beyond interpretation, context, or modern application (so long as the literal truth does not interfere with the plans of the three year olds). We have created a class of Personalized Founding Fathers in America, and the three year olds don’t seem to care much for the details. Glenn Beck and his minions, famously, adopted Thomas Paine as their Personal Founding Father. Beck styled a book and its cover on the man who was certainly the Philosopher-In-Chief of the American Revolution, and why not? The man wrote words that have become the beating heart of the Militia Movement, and are displayed with pride at every NRA convention. Of course, the details of Paine are troubling; hence the need for the aggressive personalization of his legacy. We just can’t allow the masses to know that Thomas Paine was an avowed and vocal Atheist, and we really can’t let out writings like this:

Separate an individual from society, and give him an island or continent to possess, and he cannot aquire personal property. He cannot be rich…All accumulation, therefore, of personal property, beyond what a man’s own hands produce, is derived to him from living in society; and he owes on every principle of justice, of gratitude, and of civilization, a part of that accumulation back again to society from whence the whole came.

Thomas Paine, it turns out, said “You didn’t build that.” long before President Obama. He wasn’t the only person to argue in favor of some form of progressive taxation; he wasn’t the first, and he won’t be the last. Adam Smith is the Father of Capitalism; the economic system that drives the United States (and the system favored strongly by this blog). Writing in his magnum opus, Wealth Of Nations:

The necessaries of life occasion the great expense of the poor. They find it difficult to get food, and the greater part of their little revenue is spent in getting it. The luxuries and vanities of life occasion the principal expense of the rich, and a magnificent house embellishes and sets off to the best advantage all the other luxuries and vanities which they possess. A tax upon house-rents, therefore, would in general fall heaviest upon the rich; and in this sort of inequality there would not, perhaps, be anything very unreasonable. It is not very unreasonable that the rich should contribute to the public expense, not only in proportion to their revenue, but something more than in that proportion.

We built our tax code (the simple portion of it, anyway) on the notion of taxing the spending power rather than the raw income. That portion of the code which is complicated, is largely dedicated to crafting opportunities for wealthy folks to pay less (which explains why it takes 78 grubby, unappreciative working class households claiming their child tax credit to equal Mitt Romney’s tax credit on one horse.) The progressive income tax allows the democracy to provide for public utility while chewing up relatively less of a working class household’s discretionary spending power; power needed to drive the business interests of the wealthy.

But three year olds have long complained about this arrangement, arguing in favor of “fairness”. Thus comes the fair taxes; the most punitive taxes in our code fall not on the wealthy, but rather on the working class (something like 80% of our nation lives in households that earn between $15,000 and $85,000). The so-called flat taxes we all pay, Social Security and Medicare (FICA), and sales tax use a larger share of a lower wage earner’s check than it does of a relatively higher wage earner’s check. Smith, Paine, and others pointed out the pitfalls of this approach more than 2 centuries ago, which makes their quotes are just as damaging to the arguments of three year olds as modern, empirical, economic research.

So they craft new and improved Founding Fathers in the same way they craft new and improved Covenants; they argue about interpretation, conspiracy, and generally tend to ignore what they don’t want to hear. If the Founder can’t be suitably personalized, they banish him from their role call of history. Thomas Jefferson met that fate; when his own circuitous religious history and liberal tendencies became too much for the three year olds to contend with, they scrubbed him clean. The State of Texas cut Jefferson out of the list entirely, taking historical revisionism to the heights of Nazi Propaganda.

There is much to learn from the Founding Fathers, and many Founders to whom we may listen. But chief among our goals ought to be the understanding that the Founders lived in the Age of Reason; they believed, almost to a man, in the importance of free inquiry, mental flexibility, and an economy that encouraged movement regardless of the class of birth. These are the notions that we should cling to, and these are the arguments we must make in the 21st Century. To what level does our economic structure allow for and encourage mobility, is the question most noble. We should stop personalizing the views of men long dead, and start personalizing the problems of those still living.


The Rational Middle is listening…