The protests this month in Madison have incorporated much discussion of fairness — something that people on all sides claim to be seeking. The debate reminds me of a quote by Dr. Samuel Johnson, a British scholar best known for compiling A Dictionary of the English Language in the 1750s. Dr. Johnson was a staunch conservative in an era when conservatism meant defending aristocratic privilege, and he once disparaged an egalitarian movement in England by remarking, “Sir, your levellers wish to level down as far as themselves; but they cannot bear levelling up to themselves.”
These words struck me as a very legitimate criticism. Why is it that those who stand up for fairness so often fixate on cutting down those who are better off, rather than lifting up all of society?
Make no mistake: Dr. Johnson was on the wrong side of political history. At the cusp of the American Revolution, for example, he wrote that “there can be no limited government” and that “since the Americans have made it necessary to subdue them, may they be subdued … When they are reduced to obedience, may that obedience be secured by stricter laws and stronger obligations!” This does not mean that all of Dr. Johnson’s observations lack merit. His comment about levellers seems enduringly and unfortunately relevant. It is, however, something we can change. When we work towards fairness, we should strive to level up, not to level down.
I grant that there are limits. We cannot all rise to be aristocrats, for there would then be no one left to serve our feasts or plow our fields. That dependence on servitude is where the truth becomes manifest: real unfairness comes not so much when some people have more than others, but rather when some people have more than others through coercion — when one class lives high by exploiting the labor of others.
People who legitimately seek fairness and equality will work, not to bring people down, but to raise people up by leveling the distribution of power, eliminating the privileges that give one class, race, or gender the power to exploit or to hold down the rest. That is the way to level up.
The United States was born from this very ideal of level power: “that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” Our nation was born too, it must be noted, out of anger and resentment. The Declaration of Independence asserts a few rights, but it lists many more complaints. “The History of the Present King of Great-Britain,” it says, “is a History of repeated Injuries and Usurpations, all having in direct Object the Establishment of an absolute Tyranny.” One of the several grievances listed in the Declaration, as today’s Tea Party adherents are quick to cry, was taxation.
This issue must be addressed. I just stated that real unfairness comes when some people have more than others through coercion. Taxes are a coercive means of reallocating the product of some people’s labor. Doesn’t this mean that taxation is unfair?
Yes, sometimes. No, not always. The answer depends on both how taxes are collected and how revenue is used. The cry of the American Revolutionaries was “no taxation without representation.” After they won the freedom to establish a representative government, our founders listed the ability to “lay and collect taxes” first among the constitutional powers of Congress. So long as we have “government of the people, by the people, for the people,” to quote the first Republican president (who happened also to enact the first federal income tax), then taxation is something people levy on themselves for their own benefit. It is eminently fair that citizens should pay taxes when they profit from the roads, the schools, the parks, the courts, the fiscal security, and the defense of rights, safety, and property that their representative government provides.
I am no economist. I know there is much more to the economy than tax policy. Even so, it seems to me that a short glance at recent history will show that healthy tax revenue promotes economic prosperity. When President George H.W. Bush signed a tax increase in the early 1990s, it famously cost him an election, but the following decade was very prosperous. When his son, President George W. Bush signed a tax cut in the early 2000s, it solidified his reelection prospects, but the following decade saw tremendous job losses and the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.
When the Crash of 2008 hit, the federal government quickly bailed out some of the country’s largest banks and industries. These institutions that triggered the crisis were “too big to fail,” but working Americans who had been productive through the crisis faced wage cuts and layoffs. The unemployment rate rose in 2009 — and so did the stock market. After the Dow Jones bottomed out around 6,500 in March 2009, it has nearly doubled to over 12,200 as I write in February 2011. Just last year, corporate profits reached an all-time record $1.67 Trillion, up 28% from 2009.
At the same time, federal and state budgets have plummeted into record deficit, and working families still face the impact of the recession. Is it fair that government bailed out Wall Street despite grassroots protests on all sides of the political spectrum? Is it fair that governments continue to pass tax breaks or and tax loopholes for corporations and the wealthy? Is it fair that tax revenue and public debt are spent on oil subsidies and no-bid military contracts awarded to companies organized in offshore tax havens? Taxes can be unfair. They are very unfair when their burden is unequal and when revenue from many is spent for the benefit of the few.
This takes us back to Wisconsin: is it fair for state employees to receive generous pensions and health insurance at taxpayer expense?
I do not want to rehash the arguments made ad infinitum in other blogs over how public employees are paid more than private employees, but make less than private workers with similar jobs and experience, but receive better benefits, but earn lower wages, but, but, but. You can read about that elsewhere. I do want to acknowledge that I am a non-union Wisconsin employee and that I earn less than $10,000 a year for my part-time state job, with no insurance benefits.
Is it most fair to level down until we are all paid the same as I am — or less? Oscar Wilde once wrote that a cynic is “a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.” Before deciding what is fair and unfair, it would make sense to survey the value we gain from public workers and then decide how much we are willing to pay for their skills. I do not know most public workers. I have no experience with what most of them do every day. I hope that all public workers will strive to be more visible in public service. I imagine that some are overcompensated and that others contribute far more than they are paid for. It seems unfair to cut with a broadax.
The issue of fair compensation is ultimately a moot point, however. Republicans, Democrats, and the union workers themselves have all agreed on cuts. There is a budget shortfall, despite record corporate profits and in spite of the fact that Wisconsin is one of only four states to have kept its pension system fully funded through the last recession — and something needs to be done. Benefit cuts, however, are not the issue that drove tens of thousands of protestors to Madison. Benefit cuts are not the issue that sent Democrats across state lines to delay a vote. The real issue, the big issue, the issue that no side has yet been willing to negotiate, is collective bargaining.
Those who truly seek fairness and equality will work to level up, by leveling the distribution of power and eliminating privileges that give one group the power to hold down others. This idea is the basis for unions and collective bargaining. These institutions level up. They give working people the opportunity to counterbalance their employers, whether big business or big government. I would have thought the last thing a “small government conservative” would want is a government with the unchecked power to exploit workers without negotiation.
Scott Walker’s proposals for Wisconsin are an attack on rights. The bill he has submitted would cripple worker unions. It would give his executive branch greater control over medical assistance programs and reduce legislative oversight of a program that benefits more than a million Wisconsinites — diminishing those citizens’ ability to represent their interests in government. The bill would put public utilities for sale outside the ordinary bidding process, leaving Wisconsin to pay rent tomorrow for power plants that it owns today. It would make more state employees into appointees hired for political purposes instead of selected through merit.
Walker has said that he must eliminate rights to give the government more flexibility in imposing budget cuts he plans to introduce, including a rumored $900 million cut to education. This would be the tragedy of tragedies, bankrupting Wisconsin well into the future. I need only quote John Lanthrop, the first chancellor of the University of Wisconsin, who declared in 1850: “Knowledge is the great leveler. It is the true democracy. It levels up—it does not level down.” That was the idea that made Wisconsin.
I do not know what street protests and parliamentary maneuvering can ultimately do to stop or change the Republican Party proposals. It may be that they cannot now be stopped — but I feel confident that the movement they have unleashed will long outlive them.
Our goal must be to level up. We should not cut education and health care, but rather extend them to more people at every opportunity. We should not curtail the rights of state nurses and teachers, but restore unions to the private sector, and aid in the development of organized labor across the globe — keeping corporations from cutting American employees and exploiting workers overseas. We must advocate for all who are less fortunate, because in the long term we can win, but only by making all the world more prosperous. We must level up!