In its final stages, the McCain campaign is placing a lot of emphasis on the R word—redistribution. It is insisting that Barack Obama favors redistribution, that he wants to “spread the wealth around,” and that he might even be a socialist. These claims are a form of desperation—and a disservice both to American history and American voters.
The latest “evidence” is a 2001 interview in which Obama rejected the effort to redistribute resources through the courts, said the Constitution “is generally a charter of negative liberties,” and added that the Warren Court “never entered into the issues of redistribution of wealth, and sort of more basic issues of political and economic justice in this society.” In rejecting judicially enforced redistribution, Obama aligned himself with conservative thinkers such as Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Judge Robert Bork. Some people argue that Obama also implied, or suggested, that legislatures, rather than courts, should enter “into the issues of redistribution of wealth.”
The McCain campaign suggests that this is scary stuff. But the suggestion is preposterous. John McCain himself favors redistribution; so did Ronald Reagan.
The McCain campaign suggests that this is scary stuff. But the suggestion is preposterous. John McCain himself favors redistribution; so did Ronald Reagan; so did Nobel Prize winners Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek, great defenders of free markets who launched the most devastating critiques of socialism.
What is meant by the word “redistribution”? Let us put to one side corporate bailouts, subsidies for the well-off, defense contracts, and tax breaks for industry. When the McCain campaign complains of “spreading the wealth around,” it seems to be focusing on economic assistance to those who are not doing especially well. Consider some examples from the current campaign:
Obama supports the Social Security Act. He believes in unemployment insurance. He has supported increases in the minimum wage. He wants to strengthen the Americans with Disabilities Act. He favors the Earned Income Tax Credit, which gives wage supplements to the working poor. He believes in a progressive income tax. He wants to expand the Head Start program. He favors reform of Medicare to improve benefits for senior citizens. He supports Medicaid. He seeks to ensure that every child in the United States has health care—and also a decent education.
In all of these respects, Obama does favor redistribution. But on more than one of these issues, McCain fundamentally agrees with Obama; he is certainly not an opponent of redistribution as such. Reagan himself referred, with enthusiastic approval, to the “social safety net,” declaring at a time of budgetary austerity in 1981: “We will continue to fulfill the obligations that spring from our national conscience. Those who through no fault of their own must depend on the rest of us, the poverty-stricken, the disabled, the elderly, all those with true need, can rest assured that the social safety net of programs they depend on are exempt from any cuts.”
Reagan’s social safety net “spread the wealth around.” Was it a form of socialism? Was Friedman (one of Reagan’s heroes, and a truly foundational figure for the right) a socialist because he favored a negative income tax? Was Hayek (one of Margaret Thatcher’s heroes, and perhaps the 20th century’s most important defender of capitalism) a socialist because he supported “the certainty of a given minimum sustenance for all,” including “some minimum of food, shelter and clothing, sufficient to preserve health”?
James Madison is often referred to as the father of our Constitution. But he did not oppose redistribution. On the contrary—in describing ways of combating “the evil of parties,” he offered a list:
“1. By establishing a political equality among all. 2. By withholding unnecessary opportunities from a few, to increase the inequality of property, by an immoderate, and especially an unmerited, accumulation of riches. 3. By the silent operation of laws, which, without violating the rights of property, reduce extreme wealth to a state of mediocrity, and raise extreme indigence toward a state of comfort.”
The English Poor Laws, put in place in the 16th and 17th centuries, established public responsibility for support of those who needed help. The essential framework was imported into the American colonies. It was supported by members of the founding generation. In one or another form, it provided the basis for assistance to the needy for many decades.
The word “redistribution” is often associated with Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Deal. It is true that FDR favored not only economic growth, but also a progressive income tax, minimum wage legislation, and efforts to provide basic opportunities for all. (By the way, Republican Theodore Roosevelt, McCain’s hero and FDR’s cousin, was a strong defender of the progressive income tax, a primary engine of redistribution.) In recent years, there has been some debate about FDR’s Second Bill of Rights, announced in 1944. The Second Bill included the right to a good education; the right to adequate medical care; the right to trade without domination by monopolies at home or abroad; the right to adequate protection from the economic fears associated with old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment; the right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing.
Obama has never supported anything like FDR’s Second Bill of Rights (though Hayek supported parts of it).
In context, however, it is clear that FDR was speaking about the democratic process, not about any change in the Constitution, or about judicial enforcement of positive rights. Like Obama, FDR was skeptical of social reform through the judiciary. He was committed to capitalism and to free enterprise. He despised socialism. His Second Bill of Rights was meant as a strong signal about what he saw, late in his life, as the core of his domestic policies—including those pursued by the Social Security Administration, the Office of Education, the Federal Trade Commission, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (newly relevant these months), and several agencies whose goal was to ensure that people had decent opportunities and access to remunerative employment. In the years since FDR’s death, many of those policies, however redistributive, have been pursued, in one fashion or another, by Democratic and Republican presidents alike.
To be sure, some of the disagreements between the McCain and Obama campaigns fall under the general rubric of “redistribution.” McCain has voted against increases in the minimum wage. For health care, Obama’s plan is more ambitious than McCain’s. McCain has been critical of the Head Start program. McCain does not favor tax increases on those earning more than $250,000 each year; Obama does favor such tax increases (returning to Reagan-era, pre-Bush levels).
It is certainly legitimate to debate each of these differences. But it is ludicrous to cast aspersions on, or to raise fears about, those who favor redistribution through the Earned Income Tax Credit, the Social Security Act, or Medicare and Medicaid. It is even more ludicrous to suggest that “redistribution” is a dirty word. That suggestion is a terrible insult to American history—and to the democratic process itself.