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Monday, May 16, 2011

"Class warfare" -- words with a past

by John MacBeath Watkins

Paul Ryan is accusing President Obama of "class warfare" because he calls for increases in taxes on the wealthy. Nothing new there, you say, we've been hearing the term for years, but you may not know that the term has a history.

I didn't know this myself, until I read a 1937 book titled The Spirit and Structure of German Fascism, which I wrote about here.

Of course, the concept of class struggle is better known in Marxist theory, and they were all for it. What's less known is that in the fascist movements of the 1930s, class warfare was a different kind of rallying cry. The fascists believed in the natural inequality of mankind, and believed that the class structure was both natural and necessary.

Mussolini claimed that this inequality was "irremediable, fruitful and beneficent," and the Nazis were so certain of the biological determinacy in their philosophy that they felt the sons of laborers were born to be laborers, the sons of industrialists were born to be industrialists, etc. About the only way around this was advancement through the Nazi Party. Or, of course, you could have the outward trappings of superiority -- wealth and status -- but be Jewish, and therefore the rule saying all wealth was earned and deserved didn't apply to you.

If we are born to the station we are suited to, class warfare would be against nature, not merely wrong from the point of view of those now at the top of society but wrong and repellent from the standpoint of what is natural for people -- so class warfare would be the ultimate evil.

Now, Paul Ryan is no fascist. He is more of an Objectivist, a follower of Ayn Rand's philosophy. In this philosophy, if you are poor you should get rich, and if you can't, you should admit that you're not good enough to be rich. But strangely, Objectivists are also against inheritance taxes, even though inherited wealth should not be a reflection of personal worth. This has always struck me as a little strange, and perhaps a reflection of the fact that some in this movement admire wealth, and see it as a sign of personal worth regardless of its source.

It strikes me that both the fascist and Objectivist approaches to inequality are philosophies that attempt to make people comfortable with the way the world is by explaining the inequities they see around them as just. In fact, Leonard Peikoff, founder of the Ayn Rand Institute, says something similar to this -- that Objectivism assumes a "benevolent universe" in which, if you adapt to the world, you can achieve your values. This competes with the dystopian view of Marxists, which says that the world is unjust, and you must make it just by overturning society.

The fascist view is an example of the "just world" fallacy, which we explored in this post. The Communist view is perhaps even more unrealistic, that the world is unjust, and by blowing up the whole show you can make it just. The progressive view, that the world is in some ways unjust, and we ought to fiddle with it a bit to see if we can make it a bit more just, lacks the intellectual purity of these extreme viewpoints, which is actually what I like about it.

But there is a niggling little detail that makes nonsense of Ryans claims. CBS reports that Ryan claims Obama is "sowing social unrest and class envy" by pushing a tax increase on the wealthiest individuals in order to help address the deficit and debt.

Yet Ryan's own Roadmap for America proposes to shift the tax burden from the wealthiest to the middle class. Why is it "class warfare" and "sowing social unrest and class envy" to increase the taxes on the rich, but not to decrease them? And why is an increase in taxes on the middle class not as bad as an increase in taxes on the wealthy? Either way, government is changing the distribution of wealth from our present system.

Ryan says he worries about "a class of governing elites picking winners and losers, and determining our destinies for us."

 Why, heavens. These faceless fiends might do things like letting an academically unimpressive George W. Bush into Yale, or bail him out when his business ventures looked like they might fail, which might help determine his destiny. The "governing elites" might even pass big tax cuts for the kind of people who donate money to their campaigns so they can get re-elected, thereby picking "winners."

It ain't a just world, Paul Ryan, and if you want to make it a little more just, you're not helping.

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