The T-Word

Ordinary Gentlemen Erik Kain and Chris Dierkes have mixed reviews of my recent post on the tea partiers. Rather than responding to each point, here’s a restatement that, I think, touches on them all.

Though Chris is more generous than Erik, both Gentlemen voice a certain discomfort with the T-word, Tyranny — a term associated with Randian hyperventilation, conservative hypochondria, and the dread Mark Levin. I knew I was running a risk speaking the Language of the People. I should have led off with the tyrannical aspect of the previous administration’s national security policy. But I’m not sure that would’ve helped us think harder and more clearly about tyranny in a certain important respect. I worry less that we’ll all wind up thinking that blanket wiretaps and secret torture murders are actually pillars of a free republic than I worry that we’ll simply come to embrace, apologize for, and actually defend tyranny.

Shying away from the T-word probably makes this task impossible. For those of you familiar with Plato, my argument is technically more about Platonic despotism than tyranny. The Platonic tyrant is a guy who comes along amid the chaos and exhaustion of a decadent democracy — this is how Tocqueville understood Napoleon — and simply seizes the opportunity provided him by a people so weary of serving all desires that they relish the chance to repose in serving only his own. I like to think of the Platonic despot as the great-great-great-grandson of a particularly successful tyrant — the sort of guy who sits securely enough on a sufficiently established throne to spend what seems to be his spare time arguing with philosophers. Platonically speaking, a despotism is a going concern, while a tyranny is so inherently unstable — just like the tyrant, because regimes and psyches mirror one another — that it’s most likely to self-destruct. This is an important wrinkle in political philosophy, but as far as Princeton’s WordNet is concerned, despot and tyrant are synonyms, and in this regard I take WordNet to be squarely in the mainstream of popular American political thought. Since the American Revolution, the battle cry has been tyranny, not despotism, and I do not think this is because Americans actually like despotism.

That does not mean, of course, that we are unwilling to live under a despotic regime. Tocqueville is at his most penetrating when he describes the psyche of the citizen laboring under a kind of ubiquitous, micromanagerial regime at which he simultaneously feels envy and pride. Tocqueville did not worry much that America would fall to a Napoleon. He worried about a ‘soft’ kind of tyranny that defied neologism, one that gently but firmly insinuated itself into all the corners of everyday life — not the tyranny of a single bootstomp but of a trillion nudges.

Tocqueville worried that Americans would slip into the kind of quietude under such a regime that he, in a long line of European liberals, associated with ‘oriental despotism’. Nowadays I think we can safely say that if there’s one thing wrong with ‘oriental despotism’ it isn’t social torpor. The whole attraction of the China model — a model far more challenging to the US than, say, the Jihadist model — is its combination of social dynamism and governmental fiat. It’s an appeal that can only really resonate with those who take economics to be more important than, or in some essential way prior to, politics — whether on the theory that free markets create free republics or that they render them obsolete. For those who take economic freedom without political liberty to be a disgrace — and here, though their movement is no monolith, I count the tea partiers — the China model holds no allure. Tocqueville’s concern about soft despotism or the tyranny of nudges, in other words, remains sound, even though his concern about the way we’re likely to live under such a tyranny seems misconceived today.

Now, in my original post, however, I went out of my way to put things like this —

When a government learns how to use taxes to coerce, control, and manage the behavior of its citizens, a country is placed on a perilous road — not to serfdom, necessarily, but to tyranny, a tyranny that lords over even the rich and famous, even when they happen to profit from its favor.

— rather than, say, like this:

When a government raises taxes on its citizens, or even keeps them steady, a country is plunged into the funk and hellfire of tyranny, a tyranny worse than Stalin’s or Robert Mugabe’s, and only better than that of the Burmese junta because we can get ESPN. America woo

To raise a tax is not necessarily to take a corresponding step further down the road to tyranny. Over the past ten years, in particular, movement conservatives have come to rely almost completely on the heuristic that higher taxes often correlate with bigger, stronger, more meddlesome, more tyrannical government. The theory behind this rule of thumb is that taxes are first and foremost to be understood economically: high taxes mean ‘low productivity’. This is true, but it is also misleading. My claim, which I associated with the tea partiers, is that taxes should be fundamentally understood politically.

A tyrannical regime with any brains at all, I suggested, would labor to avoid crushing the productivity of its citizens. But the point goes deeper than that: when we have forgotten how to think about taxes except in terms of productivity, we really have taken a number of strides down the road to tyranny. This is true whether or not we are free marketeers. Republicans have been so in thrall to business interests, and to business-speak, that they have fallen to claiming almost exclusively that high taxes are bad because they lower our ability to produce and consume (certain) goods and services. As our own PEG has recently pointed out, of course, the French seem to recognize a broader range of goods and services than we do — including family time, vacation time, and ‘social cohesion’.

What’s that you say? Americans like hanging out with their families too? A-a-and not working? Who are you, Perry Mason? Yes, the key difference between the American and the French model is ‘social cohesion’. On the American right, taxing to spend on ‘social cohesion’ has been singled out as the great and pernicious obstacle to productivity. But, as my friends at TAC and Front Porch Republic like to point out, corporatist thinking, which can only understand tax policy in economic terms, is really at tremendous odds with the kinds of ‘noneconomic’ productivity associated with individuals who count creating or maintaining families among their creative projects of highest achievement. The logic of corporatism leads individuals to value productivity above all, only to deny that any sort of productivity that doesn’t reinforce the logic of corporatism is truly productive.

But a significant number of conservatives of the TAC or FPR variety — the loose term is ‘Christian Democrats’ — connect the productive character of family cohesion to that of social cohesion. Tea partiers are different. To the extent that they are Christian, it seems to me, tea partiers reassert a kind of Protestant politics different from the evangelical activism of the 80s and 90s. Where evangelicals mobilized politically as a means to cultural ends, tea partiers seek political ends. They see individual projects of family cohesion as generally salutary to political liberty, but government projects of social cohesion as generally inimical to it. So they reject Republican corporatism, but not for the reasons that renegade conservatives today usually do. Rather than worrying first and foremost about ‘the social fabric’ or ‘our sense of community’, they count their political liberties most dear. Rather than ‘it’s the culture’, the motto is ‘it’s the tyranny, stupid’.

The average tea partier is probably more likely than I am to tell you that we’ve crossed over into actual tyrannical government today, but that’s a matter we get to argue over. Indeed, it’s one we get to persuade one another about, just as conservatives on different sides of the national security debate are in the process of persuading one another that the Bush legacy really is or really isn’t tyrannical. So Erik is wrong, I think, to say that “no two people can agree” on what the legitimate purposes of taxation might be. I’m not even opening the related but separate questions of what property it’s legitimate to tax, or on what things it’s legitimate to spend tax revenues — and very many people agree on these questions all the time. There’s no reason why we can’t argue about which uses of taxation are legitimate, and no reason why we can’t be persuaded in one direction or another.

In sum: my concern here is not how the government uses tax revenues to enable its own behavior, but how the government uses taxation itself to condition and manipulate the behavior of citizens — because bad choices in the first instance may make for bad governance, but bad choices in the second instance may become destructive of the ends to which human beings institute governments.