Obama’s desire to raise taxes on the wealthy (and even the not-especially-wealthy) during an economic downturn has not gone unnoticed on Ricochet lately. Surely some of the president’s advisors also have suggested to him that this policy is a bad idea. As an Economist briefing recently concluded after a survey of the evidence, “higher rates on the rich are not . . . a free lunch. At low levels rate increases will lift revenue, but not without a cost in efficiency and short-term growth. If the budget is a government’s primary concern, then the evidence is that reforms which close loopholes and broaden the tax base are a more efficient way to bring in more money than higher taxes for the rich.”
Destructive economic policies in the name of equality do make a certain amount of sense, though, if an overriding goal takes priority over economic consequences. For many on the left, this goal has a religious quality. The ordinary concerns by which most people measure success or failure of a policy become sacrificed to the religious end. Example: we know that French-style socialism results in something like ten percent structural unemployment; and yet, most people solidly on the left still want French-style socialism.
It is of course impossible to know whether Obama himself in fact embraces this type of religious enthusiasm, or whether he genuinely believes that his policies will be efficacious. Any individual case is beside the point. Eric Voegelin in The New Science of Politics describes the type of Gnostic religiosity which crops up all too often in modernity. For most orthodox Christians, the spiritual and the temporal are distinct spheres. According to modern Gnosticism, however, secular history becomes divinized.
What follows is a disconnect with facts on the ground. “In the Gnostic dream world,” Voegelin argues, “nonrecognition of reality is the first principle. As a consequence, types of action which in the real world would be considered as morally insane because of the real effects which they have will be considered moral in the dream world because they intended an entirely different effect.”
The religious quality of progressivism explains why the left somehow manages to maintain an aura of moral superiority, very often despite the facts. Most conservatives have the experience of being perceived as bad, wicked or mean when their political views are identified. We have all made the arguments many times: “No, it is not bad to support the free market, the unemployed could use more jobs”; “No, it is not wicked to support strong families, children need them”; “No, it is not mean to support law enforcement, how would you like to have been a British shopkeeper recently?” Voegelin notes “the readiness of the dreamers to stigmatize the attempt at critical clarification as an immoral enterprise.”
Perhaps the left’s aura of moral superiority will persist because religious enthusiasm applied to the political sphere is somehow more attractive, convincing or exciting than common sense. God help us all.