Much has been written about Al Gore’s recent New York Times
op-ed broadside against the Bush administration from the perspective
of politics and personality. This piece has led many commentators to
conclude that Gore is hoping for a reprise of 2000 in 2004, albeit with
a different outcome: He seems to be planning on running against George
W. Bush and using the same populist rhetoric. Observers who are more
critical of the former vice president note that it looks like his petulance
and self-righteousness will be back again too.
Yet not enough has been said about the mentality and ideology the article
betrayed, far removed from Gore’s centrist reputation. More was
at work here than simple partisan Bush-bashing. Speaking to the moderate
Democratic Leadership Council, Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-CT), the 2000
Democratic vice-presidential nominee and a possible candidate for the
2004 nomination, wisely attempted to steer his party away from class
warfare. He acknowledged that the Gore-Lieberman ticket’s “people
versus the powerful” slogan was detrimental because it reinforced
the Democrats’ anti-business image, at the expense of the progress
“New Democrats” had made in reconnecting with investors
and middle-class voters during the 1990s. It was in response to this
criticism from Lieberman and other Democratic moderates that Gore penned
In addition to reciting a litany of Democratic talking points against
the Bush administration, Gore was stinging in his rebuke to the DLC
Democrats: “Standing up for the people, not the powerful, was
the right choice in 2000. In fact, it is the ground of the Democratic
Party's being, our meaning and our mission.”
Despite all Gore’s rhapsodizing about “the people,”
his program consists of government second-guessing of their choices
and micromanagement of their lives in order to protect them from “the
powerful.” His policies assume government can spend money more
wisely than “the people” can. Tax cuts, to the extent they
should be enacted at all, should not consist of lower marginal rates
or abolishing levies – “the people” should only be
allowed to receive “targeted tax breaks” when they behave
in bureaucratically approved ways. Such “targeted tax relief”
should also be denied to taxpayers with incomes greater than certain
arbitrary cut-offs, regardless of how much they are already paying in
taxes, and paid out as subsidies to those with little or no actual tax
liability. Thus, instead of getting tax relief, some “working
families” would have their income redistributed to others.
At bottom, Gore may self-righteously claim that he, unlike his opponents,
sincerely believes that “the people are sovereign” but he
doesn’t trust ordinary people very much. He believes that without
strong federal intervention, they will destroy the environment, build
corrupt businesses, engage in rampant discrimination and fail economically.
Despite his professed concern for “the future of democratic capitalism,”
Gore prefers the security he sees in authoritative government to the
risk involved in the free market. He may talk about economic growth,
but all his policies focus on redistribution of existing wealth.
Certainly, the financial world has been rocked by unethical business
practices in recent months and anybody who – unlike Gore –
has ever spent an extended period of time in the private sector knows
how imperfect businesses can be. Given that human beings are imperfect,
this is to be expected but it does not make life any easier for those
who have been victimized by the greed or stupidity of their employers.
But the fact remains that the free market has done a much better job
at creating wealth, improving living standards, providing financial
security, ameliorating poverty, advancing technology and contributing
to the overall well-being of humanity than any demagogue who ever claimed
to be able to use raw government power to do the same things.
Moreover, no rich person or corporation is anywhere nearly as “powerful”
as the federal government. A corrupt business may cheat you out of your
property, but government not only can confiscate your property but your
liberty. No one has ever been jailed or executed by WorldCom or Enron.
When the Founding Fathers wanted to protect the people from the powerful,
they did so by decentralizing and limiting government.
The Constitution contains enumerated powers as a grant of authority
to the federal government from the people. The last two amendments in
the Bill of Rights make even more explicit the Constitution’s
protection of the people from federal powers. The Ninth Amendment reads,
“The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall
not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”
The Tenth Amendment reads, “The powers not delegated to the United
States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are
reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.” The Framers
clearly distinguished “the people” from their government.
Blogger Patrick Ruffini has even noted that Gore’s mantra was
questionable on its own terms: “Was there any message more jarring
and inauthentic than the ‘people vs. the powerful,’ especially
for a guy who grew up on Massachusetts Avenue? Gore might as well have
campaigned in his St. Albans tie and had Marty Peretz give stump speeches
for him, because people in 2000 saw straight through the rhetoric and
voted as if that had been the case all along.”
However, the problem isn’t just with the messenger. The substance
of the people versus the powerful message is that Americans are in direct
competition for slices of a finite economic pie, with government acting
as referee. This is a false portrayal of the economy designed to pretend
that the only way fairness can be achieved is to entrust wise and compassionate
people like Gore with government power. In the age of the New Investor
Class, the owners of capital aren’t rich robber barons. They are
ordinary working Americans.
Directly contradicting the Founding Fathers, this version of the “people
versus the powerful” in fact centralizes power in the hands of
the political class. To suggest that they do not constitute a “special
interest” or the “privileged few” is to deny reality.
The people will in fact be freer to create prosperity through innovation
and excellence living in the constitutional republic of their Founders
than in Al Gore’s nanny state.