The Elitist Persuasion

John Berthoud In September, Alabama voters sent Governor Bob Riley's record tax hike to a crushing defeat at the polls, after Riley had labored for months to sell the measure. Riley (who calls himself a Republican) and his cronies couldn't understand why the $1.2 billion tax increase never gained traction with the public, despite an all-out scare campaign on behalf of the proposal. Towards the end of the campaign, Riley's Policy Director David Stewart offered his explanation: "the people of Alabama are too . . . stupid to know better." Considering that most families in America are paying more in taxes than they are for food, clothing, shelter, and transportation combined, perhaps the ignorance actually lies with Riley and Stewart who worked so unceasingly to worsen that burden.

Stewart's sentiments echo those of President Clinton several years ago in Buffalo, during the brief age of federal budget surpluses. Clinton explained to an audience why the surpluses couldn't be returned to taxpayers. "So the question is, what do we do with it [the surplus]? We could give it all back to you and hope you spend it right. But I think -- here's the problem -- if you don't spend it right, here's what's going to happen." Clinton went on to explain that potentially poor choices by individuals would hasten the bankruptcy of Social Security. Therefore, government had to keep all the money.

Political slips? Definitely. But comments like these are very revealing of the true nature of American liberalism. It is a philosophy that's all about political elites and government bureaucrats -- the so-called "experts" -- making decisions for individuals and families.

Thus, government is needed for an endless multitude of tasks. There are the nanny-state functions where personal judgment is replaced by government dictates. So, for example, America now has requirements for individuals to wear seatbelts. The U.S. also has enacted some of the highest taxes in the world on tobacco, based on the argument that the levies will "discourage use." The newest target being lined up is the food industry. Yale Psychology Professor Kelly Brownell has led the charge for a luxury tax on unhealthy foods. Determinations of which foods are approved or not would presumably be made by some group of government or academic "experts." The so-called "fat tax" would be used to fund an expansion of public health campaigns.

This elitist mentality is also at work in the debate over Social Security reform. President Bush has proposed allowing individuals to keep part of their Social Security taxes. Taxpayers would own and invest this money themselves. The pro-government crowd has fought this idea vociferously, because it would end the current monopoly control that Washington has over these retirement dollars.

Liberalism even takes an elitist tack on the revenue side of the ledger. Rather than seeking full disclosure of tax burdens, pro-government advocates have created a tax system that is largely obscured from the average person. Politicians may know how much our tax system collects, but average voters don't know that they're all paying literally thousands of dollars a year in taxes they never see. These hidden levies are embedded in the price of goods ranging from beer to airline tickets to phone service.

Admittedly, ideology alone doesn't create these elitist policies. There is a fair amount of greed and self-interest behind big government as well. Despite the huge run-up in education spending that has occurred in the past several decades, teacher unions are continually pressing for even more dollars to go to public schools, and consequently also to their union members. Trial lawyers have made billions in government lawsuits launched against tobacco, and they stand to make billions more in their coming wars against the food industry. Opponents of Social Security reform recognize that the overhaul might lead to an employment reduction in the Social Security Administration and consequently a reduction in dues-paying members of public employee unions. Reduced membership is a particularly sore subject for the unions after they have endured years of declining private sector rolls.

It is ironic that liberals often try to paint conservatives as captives of elites, when it is the liberals themselves who have fought so hard to take power, money, and decision-making away from America's individuals and families.

John Berthoud is President of the 350,000-member National Taxpayers Union (

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