Dangerous Populism

Outsider candidates are inevitably dismissed as “populists” by the establishment.  Monday’s hit piece on Sarah Palin at the Politico was but the latest attempt to level the charge at her, claiming that “the conservative intelligentsia” fears “her rise would represent the triumph of an intellectually empty brand of populism and the death of ideas as an engine of the Right.”  The disdain of George Will was employed to underscore that the GOP would not “remain the party of ideas” if Palin were its presidential nominee.

Populism will always exist in the eye of the beholder, but as long as we’re talking about foolish ideas that play upon the passions and fears of the masses, there are some dangerous examples I’d like to cleanse from our public discourse.   

For starters, let’s get rid of the stupid idea that we can solve our financial problems by taxing the rich.  It can’t be done.  It’s mathematically impossible.  We couldn’t close the federal budget gap with the outright confiscation of every penny from The Evil Rich, never mind by jacking up their tax rates.  Kevin Williamson at National Review did a terrific job of running the numbers on this, earlier this week – click here if you want to check his math.  There’s no way to get the kind of money we need to maintain our current spending levels, and avoid fiscal catastrophe, without dramatically increasing taxes on the middle class.

The “soak the rich” concept has been a core belief of modern liberalism for decades.  It’s also a perfect example of “intellectually empty populism.” It’s a patently absurd idea that plays to the envy and arrogance of liberal voters, as well as appealing to lazy “moderates” in search of easy solutions to complex problems.  It’s a lot easier to blame our fiscal woes on a small, faceless group of greedy fatcats than to do the hard work of deciding which parts of our bloated federal government should be cut… and gearing up to do battle with highly motivated dependents who will fight like wildcats to keep their taxpayer loot.

Let’s also rid ourselves of the populist notion that every desirable benefit is a “right.”  Rights must be universal in order to be valid.  If providing your benefits involves seizing my property by force, then those benefits are not a “right.”  The invention of “rights” that can only be satisfied by an all-powerful State applying compulsive force against some of its citizens is one of the most toxic developments of the past few centuries.

We should dispel the popular illusion that the growth of government is inevitable.  This is built right into the language of the Left, which views “progress” as the reduction of individual liberty.  This idea appeals to the same people who think the government can access unlimited funding by soaking the rich.  Every function the State usurps is one less thing they have to worry about doing for themselves… and they’ve already decided not to worry about what happens when the State runs out of money.

The populist understanding of “greed” is a crushing dead weight we can do without.  Greed is portrayed as a unique affliction of the private sector, and is commonly used to describe the desire of individual citizens to retain their own property and earnings.  That is not “greed.”  To accept the term is to accept the State’s primary ownership of everything, for greed involves the refusal of another party’s rightful claims.  This concept is wholly incompatible with free-market capitalism and American democracy, which is not meant to provide citizens with a microscopic amount of influence over the disposition of collectively-owned wealth.  The hunger of politicians to seize ever-greater amounts of money and property from American citizens would be more properly described as “greed.”

Embracing the leftist definition of greed also starves us of ambition, and teaches us to be satisfied with less… a very convenient mindset for politicians who sow dependency to reap power.  A liberal once told me he didn’t want to take the “risk” of tax cuts because he was happy with the benefits our lavishly funded government provided him.  What fine servants such people make!  And how useful they are to statists who want to decide how much “risk” the rest of us should be allowed to take!

Liberal populism has been killing America for decades, and I notice the elegant theories of establishment Republicans haven’t done much to stop them.  We should have the wisdom to understand that some simple and appealing notions are correct, while others are dangerous fantasies.  Knowing the difference is far more important than denouncing anyone who can connect with average people as a populist charlatan, whose clumsy antics threaten to knock over the delicate house of cards Beltway “conservatives” have been building, with the amused indulgence of a Left they do not threaten.