A Republic If You Can Keep It
On this Independence Day, let us not just remember those who died that America might have its freedom, but also what they died for. The truest respect for sacrifice is not to hold a parade, to speak of gratitude or to say fond words; no, the truest respect is to value that which the dead fought for and to continue their fight.
America’s founders fought for freedom, we’re told, and there’s a lot of truth to that, though it wasn’t, then, freedom for all. In the context of the 18th century freedom meant some of what it means today: all men equal before the law, no taxation without representation, freedom to worship as you chose, and so on, but it also meant freedom from the aristocracy, and freedom from inherited power. "All men equal before the law" was a strike, not against slavery, but against the nobility. No man should have more rights than another; no man should have power because of who his father was.
America is the land of opportunity, it was said. Some still say this, and perhaps it’s still true. But the deeper truth is dying. Inherited wealth and inherited power are on the rise. For centuries, indeed until somewhere between 10 and 20 years ago, America, amongst all the nations in the entire world, had the most inter-generational mobility. To put it another way, no matter who your father was, or who your mother was, you could make it in America. More than in any other nation, in America you had a fair shot.
Now no one would say you can’t still make it in America. No one would say that opportunity isn’t still available in the land of the free and the home of the brave. But the fact, the sad fact, is that amongst Western nations the US now has the most income inequality and the least inter-generational mobility (along with Britain, the nation which follows American policies most closely). In America it now matters more who your father is, who your mother is, how much money your family has and how many connections it has, than in any other Western nation. The old European nations are now the land of opportunity, the land where who your parents were matters least.
The reasons are simple enough. Inheritance taxes have been weakened and progressive taxation has been slashed. The primary education system, funded by local tax dollars, systemically favors people who live in wealthy neighborhoods, while university tuition has grown far faster than inflation at the same time as student aid has been slashed to the bone. The extremely rich have bought the government and use it to arrogate money to themselves, either through preferential laws—for example, Medicare Part D or the Bush tax cuts; or directly—for example, the 15 trillion spent on the financial crisis, the vast majority of which went in effect to the rich.
Power is passed from father and mother to daughter and son, with Congressional seats being passed on like some sort of inheritance and major network spots likewise going to the children of the influential. Perhaps there are no titles, but when, for example, Luke Russert, a man with no meaningful accomplishments of his own save being the offspring of late NBC news anchor Tim Russert, is hired as a national news commentator at age 22 over others who have worked harder, who have done more, and are vastly better qualified, it’s hard to see his inheritance as all that different from a Baron passing his rights, lands and chattel to his son.
All men are created equal. But, as Orwell noted in Animal Farm, some are more equal.
For example, if you were to kidnap a man and torture him for years on end, you’d be tried in a court of law and sent to jail. But if you were at the highest level of government in the United States and did so in violation of the law, your successor might well say that the US needs to look forward, not backwards.
Nothing strikes at the heart of the revolution, at the heart of the struggle for independence than this, that America has become not a nation of laws, but a nation of men, where some men are more equal than others. To be sure it has always been true that the rich and powerful have been more apt to escape Justice’s blind grasp. Yet at the same time, there can be no question that in the last eight years the greatest lawbreakers, the greatest mass murder in the country was also the highest official in the country. And that he and his accomplices will get away with their crimes, not because we don’t all know they’re crimes, but because the idea of accountability, of equality before the law, for the highest government officials is now dead.
There are certainly those who cry out for justice. But, let’s be frank: they don’t matter, because the people in power—in Congress and the executive branch, and quite probably on the Supreme Court (though we can’t be sure about that)—don’t believe that the laws apply to them in the same way they apply to ordinary people.
All men, in the land of the free, in the land of the brave, are no longer equal before the law.
The rallying cry of the revolution was No Taxation Without Representation, and that too is dead. The Treasury and the Federal Reserve, between them have spent, loaned, guaranteed and issued about 15 trillion dollars. With the exception of about 700 billion or so of that money, they didn’t get Congress’s permission for it, and when Congress asked how they were spending the money, they refused to answer.
That’s taxation without representation, and it has continued as much under the current administration as the previous one. Moreover, faced with the greatest failure of regulation in the post-war period, most notably by the Federal Reserve, the government has proposed to give that self-same Federal Reserve even more power. It is notable that of all the agencies which could be given more power, the Federal Reserve is the most removed from Congressional control, the most opaque, and the least democratic.
One suspects that for the executive branch all of these things aren’t bugs, they’re features.
And so, 233 years since 1776, in the land of the free and the home of the brave, aristocracy is on the rise, opportunity is taking a swan dive, taxation without representation rules the day and for the most powerful men and women, America has become a nation of men, not laws.
"A Republic, if you can keep it" – Ben Franklin
Can you? Have you?
My wish for America, then, this Independence Day, is that you keep your Republic. Or, if perhaps you’ve lost it, that you regain it.