Whiplash Watching the Right

Lisa Schiffren writes:

The doctors, lawyers, engineers, executives, serious small-business owners, top salespeople, and other professionals and entrepreneurs who make this country run work considerably harder than pretty much anyone else (including most of the chattering class, and all politicians). They are not robber barons, or trust-fund babies, or plutocrats, or even celebrities. They are mostly the meritocrats who worked hard in high school and got into the better colleges and grad schools, where they studied while others partied. They pushed through grueling hours and unpleasant “up or out” policies in their twenties and thirties at top law firms, banks, hospitals, and businesses to earn salaries in the solid six figures (or low seven) today — in their peak earning years. Their work ethic is prodigious, and, as Tigerhawk points out, in their spare time they sit on the boards of most of the complex charities and arts institutions that provide aid and pay for culture in America. No group of people contribute more to their community. And now the president, who followed a path sort of like that, and who claims that his wife’s former six-figure income was a result of precisely such qualifications and efforts, is demonizing them. More problematically, he is penalizing their success and giving them very clear incentives to ratchet back on productivity.

Okay, I agree to a point. I know a lot of big firm lawyers, doctors, consultants, engineers and entrepreneurs. They’re driven, intelligent folks who work exceptionally hard (though no harder than many Mexican immigrants who work 12 hour days at construction sites or folks I know who turned their whole lives over to their Teach for America kids.) The fact that these people aren’t robber barrens, certain parts of Wall Street excepted, and that their exceptional intelligence and productivity is a boon to us all, does bear keeping in mind, and I’m glad Jim Manzi and others are warning that the entrepreneurs among them are going to respond rationally to incentives.

Indeed, I wish that those Democrats who vilify the rich would stop, and that Barack Obama would abandon the fiction that a healthy polity can fund massive new expenditures by asking a vanishingly small percentage of the population to foot the entire bill.

But do you know why we are in a position where this sort of massive expansion of government is possible? It is partly because America’s professional class — its lawyers, engineers, and doctors, those meritocrats who “got into the better colleges and grad schools” — voted in large numbers for the Democratic candidate. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that affluent professional meritocrats, who often live in urban centers and prize competence, spent the 2008 campaign being told by the GOP ticket that big city professionals live in fake America, that a diploma from an elite college is reason for suspicion, that the wine these folks drink marks them as less authentic than the beer of their compatriots, etc.

The GOP cannot wage a culture war against elites when it is convenient to rally the base, and later make a credible claim to be the champion of those same elites when it comes time to talk about marginal tax rates. What does the average, apolitical law firm partner or neurosurgeon or mechanical engineer think when he flips on the television and sees Joe the Plumber being held up as the face of the Republican Party? Do they think, “This is a party that is going to reward meritocrats like me,” or do they think, “I’ve got a choice between a party that’s going to insult my intelligence, and another that’s going to take a slightly higher percentage of my annual earnings.”

As I already wrote, there is wisdom to be gleaned from Atlas Shrugged, and I’ve the same feelings as Will Wilkinson about the notion of people “dropping out”:

Maybe vocally “going Galt” as a protest move is a useful way to put a dramatic face on optimal tax theory, but of course that’s not what folks who talk about it have in mind. They have morality in mind. And taxation is a moral issue, a matter of justice, and I’m glad Americans resist the idea that their government is entitled to consume ever larger portions of their incomes. So I certainly don’t mind if bunch of people declare they are “going Galt” if it reinforces healthy, deep-seated American norms about the injustice of excessive taxation.

I don’t mind either. But it is very weird to watch the whole right blogosphere go gaga for Ayn Rand, a Christian hating, sexually libertine, elitist extremist, so soon after holding up as its champions a symbolic everyman like Joe the Plumber, and an evangelical VP candidate. Speaking of Sarah Palin, I wonder what Ayn Rand would’ve though of the windfall profits tax she imposed on Alaska oil companies? My bet is that Ellis Wyatt would’ve strangled her rather than let her into Galt’s Gulch.