President Obama and his Progressive brethren (and sistren) operate under a straightforward and attractive foundational principle: people's assets and income should be roughly equal, or at least more equal than they are now. Call this principal "financial equality." This principle is the necessary foundation for the Progressive assertion that wealth should be "redistributed" by the government.
Financial inequality is different than poverty. If 99% of our society were suddenly given $200,000 each by the government, but the other 1% were given $1 million each, income inequality would have increased, but not poverty.
It is possible for an entire society to get much wealthier, but at the same time, for financial inequality to increase. Conversely, it is possible for a society to become much more equal financially, yet for everyone to get much poorer. For instance, perfect destitution for everyone would also mean perfect financial equality. I am sure Mr. Obama does not seek perfectly distributed destitution, so the goal is likely lots of wealth distributed evenly.
Once you accept the principle of financial equality, Mr. Obama's policy choices become much easier to understand. Even though tax increases on wealthy Americans will do very little to balance the budget deficit, and are likely to slow economic growth, they tend to reduce financial inequality, and are therefore desirable.
Financial equality makes sense, as a policy, when you believe that if everyone had roughly the same income and assets, we would all be happier, healthier, and more neighborly, provided the income and assets were enough to live on.
This is where I have my doubts. Let me share just a few brief examples.
Would financial equality eliminate war? Unlikely. Plenty of very wealthy nations have gone to war over the years. Think of Germany (4 times between 1867-1945). Think of every colonial power during the 19th century. These countries were not trying to gain financial parity. They were wealthier than the countries whom they attacked.
Neither would financial equality eliminate drug addiction, as anyone who has dealt with addiction can tell you.
Perhaps there is a point, when everyone has financial equality, where we would see drug addiction disappear or greatly diminish, but this seems wildly unlikely. There was a huge problem with alcoholism in the former Soviet Union, which made far more progress toward financial equality than we have.
Would financial equality eliminate greed and envy? Not in my experience. People in most American suburbs are very evenly matched financially. They still suffer from lots of envy and greed. College professors, some of the smartest, most financially equal and Progressive people on earth, are notoriously prone to envy and greed, fighting savagely with each other over seemingly minor financial issues.
Getting more money can ease certain types of pain, but it doesn't make people happy. If my getting more money doesn't actually made me a happier person, how does making sure I have the same amount as everyone else make me happier?
I don't buy the first principles of Progressivism. I don't agree with the notion that financial inequality is problem #1 with humanity. Not by a long shot. That doesn't mean I think poverty is a good thing, or irrelevant. Remember that financial inequality and poverty are not the same thing.
So the basic premise of Progressivism is suspect, in my mind. In addition, there is an unavoidably messy secondary problem. It has to do with implementing the Progressive vision.
The difficulty is that people are not equal in their gifts and personalities. They are spread all over the "bell shaped curve." Some are very industrious, some are very lazy. Some are incredibly aggressive, some very passive. Some are smart, some, not so much.
All these differences translate into very different outcomes, when it comes to money. If everyone is just left alone, some people will accumulate vast wealth and others will not. This is a true even if everyone got the exact same opportunities at birth.
To get to financial equality, a government must apply force, not just once, but constantly, and not just in certain key locations, but over the entire society. People who are economically maladroit will (by and large) have to be given regular subsidies. The people who are economically adept will (by and large) constantly have to have their money taken away.
Progressivism, taken to its logical end, does not just welcome totalitarianism, it requires totalitarianism in order to maintain financial equality. Thus, it becomes very difficult to keep Progressives from lurching over into totalitarianism.
This is why Progressivism so often leads to totalitarianism. No other form of government can even begin to meet Progressivism's need to achieve and maintain financial equality. This is why the Progressive "cure" is often worse than the "disease." That is not to say the "disease" is a good thing and should be ignored. It is just to say that a sick patient does not need an abusive "remedy" that makes the situation worse.
The Progressive's vision becomes almost impossible to translate into an individual's code of conduct. If having some material possessions makes me happy and healthy, why wouldn't having more make me happier still? And why should some hypothetically "equal" amount of material goods maximize my happiness? So 73% of the population are content with their 1964 Dodge Darts and their lack of hot water. This means I should be perfectly happy with the Dart and a cold shower? Because most people are? Because that's what the "average" is?
On the way to financial equality, Progressivism has to hobble at least half its population, the economically adept, and subsidize the other half, the economically maladroit. So it is that half the population, with far more than half the total potential for making wealth, must constantly be suppressed, lest they be too successful, while the other half must be constantly subsidized or they will fall behind.
All this is supposed to be managed by those notoriously thrifty and efficient bureaucrats in Washington.
This suppression of the economically adept makes the adept miserable and makes it hard to generate the money to pay subsidies to the economically maladroit. Once the adept learn that hard work will not get them any more goods than laziness, and that they are in effect serfs working to support the economically maladroit, they quite rationally opt for laziness. The closer Progressivism gets to its goal, the more a society's productivity tends to erode. Instead of sharing more and more wealth, as Progressive societies mature they share more and more self-inflicted poverty.
In sum, Progressivism, for all its intended benefits, is an almost perfect device for the immiseration (noun: the act of making miserable) of a society. Reason and logic suggest that this is so. Many examples drawn from the last 100 years suggest that this is so.
Nevertheless, the glowing promise that Progressivism will make everyone better and happier is such an intoxicating vision that people keep buying it, in the fervent belief that THIS time it will all work out. Progressivism is a bit like rooting for the Chicago Cubs to win the Series, except that Cubs fans don't really believe the Cubs will win.
Right now the United States, the wealthiest nation in the history of mankind, is knee deep at Progressive Beach, preparing to wade further into the water with its cool Progressive surfboard.
As the waves roll in, we may want to watch what is happening in Venezuela, Greece, Italy, Spain, France and the State of California. All six are further out in the surf, paddling toward a shared Progressive vision of the perfect wave. They are either having lots of fun, waving their arms and yelling, or else maybe they are drowning. It would be important to know which one it is.
Watching them, we may want to get on our surfboards and rock on, or we may decide to gather up our stuff and head back to the boardwalk before things get ugly.
As for me, I find all six of those societies, and their governments, alarming. I have no desire to emulate them.
In any event I am optimistic that we will all be much better informed on this issue by 2016.