US presidential election "Redistribution"

29 October 2008

My friends! That one is a socialist. He wants to become the redistributor-in-chief, I will become the commander-in-chief. He wants to take away YOUR money and give it to others. This is socialism, my friends, that’s fine in France or Sweden but that’s not the way we do things here. What we need is not redistribution, taking away money from hardworking Americans, like YOU and Joe the Plumber, but tax cuts so that more jobs are created. He wants to tax, tax and tax, then spend, spend, spend! No, my friends, what we need is tax cuts across the board.

Above is a very caricatured version of what Mr McCain has been telling the voters. Or the bits that I have seen and read on those nasty liberal and manifestly biased media outlets BBC, CNN, NYT etc. The argument that tells Mr Obama is a socialist or even a Marxist because he wants to redistribute wealth seems to be going down well with his supporters. Apparently, describing the opponent as "tax and spend" still has currency in the US.

I find it interesting that this (quite frankly absurd) line of attack has potency, albeit mostly likely to be insufficient on its own to change the outcome of the election. How many of those among the cheering crowd will actually lose out because they earn or make more than a quarter of a million dollars, if Mr Obama were to win? Not many, methinks. So it isn’t THEIR money that is being taken away. Most members of Mr McCain’s rallies would benefit more if there were more redistribution, but they are not be happy about it and will not accept it.

In many countries, "tax the rich (and off with their heads)!" is a popular position to take, but not in America. It seems that the less wealthy either believe that taxing their richer fellow citizens is unfair, or that they will be joining the ranks of the rich and affected by the tax rise. My feeling is that for many, it’s a combination of both.

The US is a country and society made strong on individual diligence and independence. There are always opportunities and with your wit and industry about, you can be what you want to be. This is the dream, legend and myth of America. There is much to be lauded: it gives freedom and autonomy to the individual and no one should depend on the largesse of the others. Only the lazy cannot make it or fulfill one’s destiny. And therefore, there is something shameful about depending on the state – money raised from the fellow citizens. No one can fault that aspiration.

Yet individuals do not live and exist in vacuum. They live in communities. The weak and the poor must be supported: you cannot let them go hungry and cold, and die in the streets. So there are minimal measures of support for the most vulnerable in the society, sufficient for life and minimal of human dignity. The US has a strong tradition of voluntary associations, for example churches, which do more of social work that states do elsewhere.

Any state redistributes, not all in the form of monetary or food hand-outs mentioned earlier, but also in terms of education and health. Many people would oppose redistribution for the sake of equality in wealth, i.e. everyone has the same level of material well-being. But many also think it right that the state should do something to give more opportunities to its citizens, particularly in the form of educational and social chances. Taxing to fund better education, increased taxes for research and for healthcare are redistribution as well.

The paradox is that those cheering for Mr McCain and their children probably have more to gain from Mr Obama’s victory than Mr McCain’s. And for America to remain strong, it needs more educated and healthier people. Why "redistribution" remains such a dirty word and a useful label to tarnish the opponent is somewhat of a mystery to me.