A recurring piece of silliness hovering over the presidential campaign is the charge that President Obama is a closet Marxist.
Unlike other claims disparaging the President’s loyalty to the country, the Marxism charge, though easily debunked, should be for two reasons. First, variants of it are regularly trotted out by mainstream present and aspiring office holders. Second, and more important, buying into it requires that you twist our history beyond recognition. Think what we will about the President, we shouldn’t lose our grip on our own history in this orgy of partisan fervor.
I’m not sure what the evidence for President Obama’s Marxism is supposed to be. I guess it’s the class warfare that he’s said to be waging. And I’m not sure what the evidence for that is either, but I guess it’s his proposal that the top marginal federal income tax rate be raised from 35% to what it was during the Clinton Administration, 39.6%.
If the President’s accusers actually read Marx, they might think they’d found a smoking gun in the Manifesto of the Communist Party, where Marx says that once the world’s downtrodden workers triumph, they should sock it to the vanquished capitalists with “A heavy progressive or graduated income tax.”
The trouble with this as evidence that Obama is a Marxist fellow traveler is that issues of wealth and class have been at the heart of American political culture since the earliest days of the Republic. That wouldn’t surprise anybody with a clue about our history. The Revolutionary War broke out in large measure because the colonists got fed up with being England’s cash cow, milked to support the lifestyles of the rich and royal in George III’s court. A deep and enduring legacy of that rupture was the Americans’ exquisite sensitivity to anything that smacked of the trappings of the monarchy they rebelled against.
The intense suspicion of anti-republican leanings colored virtually every aspect of our early political life. You wouldn’t think that a question as coma-inducing now as how big the House of Representatives should be could have been the focus of such misgivings. But you’d be wrong.
When the draft of the United States Constitution went to the state ratifying conventions, at the New York convention, two delegates, Melancton Smith and Alexander Hamilton, engaged in an extended debate about whether the membership of the House of Representatives should number more or less than sixty-five. That was the membership that the Constitution’s formula for apportioning representatives produced. Smith thought the number was too small and Hamilton didn’t.
The heart of Smith’s argument is that “Every society naturally divides itself into classes,” and a representative body consisting of only sixty-five members too likely will be dominated by the wealthy and well-born. That would be a bad thing, he says, because “…the substantial yeomanry of the country are more temperate, of better morals and less ambitious than the great. The latter do not feel for the poor and middling class…. The great consider themselves above the common people—entitled to more respect—do not associate with them—they fancy themselves to have a right to pre-eminence in every thing. In short, they possess the same feelings, and are under the influence of the same motives, as an hereditary nobility.”
Hamilton’s rejoinder was that fiddling with the size of House membership won’t prevent what Smith feared. Whatever the size of the House, as long as wealth isn’t too concentrated and information flows freely, Smith’s “middling sorts” will have as good a shot at election to the House as anybody else. In Hamilton’s own words, “While property continues to be pretty equally divided, and a considerable share of information pervades the community; the tendency of the people’s suffrages will be to elevate merit even from obscurity.”
But, he goes on, to the degree that wealth becomes concentrated, republican government will be compromised and no constitution that either he or Smith might devise will be proof against that development. No starry-eyed idealist, Hamilton thought that the trend toward more concentrated wealth and the corruption of republican government was virtually inevitable, being “a real disposition of human nature…. It is a common misfortune, that awaits our state constitution, as well as all others.”
Tax policy has developed in this country as if to prove Hamilton wrong. The earliest tax case to reach the United States Supreme Court, Hylton v. United States heard in 1796, involved a luxury tax on carriages. The tax was upheld unanimously. (Jeopardy clue: name the 1796 precedent cited by Chief Justice Roberts in upholding the constitutionality under Congress’s taxing power of the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate.)
Although several states had progressive tax codes before the Civil War, the first national income tax was imposed in 1862 to fund the war. Since it was a progressive tax put in place a decade before Marx embraced the idea, we couldn’t have gotten it from him. It’s likelier that he cribbed it from us.
After being repealed in 1872, the income tax was reinstated in 1894 but ruled unconstitutional in 1895 by the Supreme Court in Pollock v. Farmers’ Loan & Trust. Pollock motivated both political parties to push for the adoption of the Sixteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which provided for a national income tax. The rest, as they say, is history, at least to everybody but emissaries from Ron Paul World, who insist that the amendment was never properly ratified.
Even if the Sixteenth Amendment got into the Constitution on a colossal procedural blunder, there’s no denying that the principle of progressivity has been from the outset a core element of our tax policy. The federal income tax imposed its highest marginal rate, 94%, in 1944-45. Even if President Obama succeeds in setting it at 39.6%, that’ll be less than half of what it was in the last year of World War II.
Silly as it is for people to think that President Obama is an alien, un-American interloper for advocating policies that are squarely within the American mainstream, what’s even sillier is that some who’ve peddled this line are inspired by a mediocre Russian-born novelist and a gaggle of Austrian economists.