by Anthony Esolen
Right now, Americans are experiencing the dire effects of the most regressive and unjust tax of all: government-engineered and government-fueled inflation. Let us consider the matter. What is an extra $50 at the gas tank to the rich man? He can absorb the loss. What if a box of cookies at Walmart costs $5 instead of $2? He doesn’t go there anyway. Why, he can offset the extra expense of the high price of oil, which becomes the extra expense of everything else either made of oil or delivered by oil or gasoline, by eating at home a little more often than at his favorite restaurant.
I am exaggerating a little, I know, but you get the point. People need food, shelter, clothing, and the means to get around to do their work, and they need the work, too, work that will permit a man to support his wife and children, so that home and not the workplace, the street and the neighborhood and not the highway and the strip mall, will be the center of human activity. Everything that makes it more expensive for ordinary people to obtain those ordinary goods is, if government policy is behind it, a tax on the working class and the middle class, and it hurts the most vulnerable among us the worst.
The principle is easy to grasp. The rich man eats no more than the poor man. The rich man’s body needs to be kept no warmer in the winter than the poor man’s body. The rich man is probably less likely than the poor man to have to drive a few hundred miles a week.
The Democrats, when my father was young, used to be, as he told me, “for the little guy,” but that has not been reliably true since they gave the black ball to the littlest guy of all, our brother in the womb, and it has not been true at all since the party has cast its lot with the social and ideological hobbies of certain of the rich.
The old jest, that an environmentalist is someone who already has his summer home in the mountains of Colorado, is revealing in its unwittingly Marxist way. For Karl Marx, that great stopped clock in the history of ideas, did understand that, in general, rich people will pursue policies that keep them rich and eliminate the threat of being overtaken from below. The environmentalism that drives up the price of oil is a rich man’s hobby, as the feminism that has helped to drive the skilled trades from our schools (because boys mostly profit by them) is a rich woman’s hobby. The WNBA, indeed, is a rich man’s hobby for sort-of-rich women, as it is financed mainly by the NBA. I can think of plenty of uses for that money that would be far more profitable for basketball-playing boys in our dysfunctional cities.
Far be it from me to tell rich people to give up their hobbies. If the NBA wants to finance the WNBA, it’s scarcely any business of mine. But when hobbies become cultural imperatives, or legal directives, then they are everyone’s business. Then we must ask what the imperatives and directives do for the common good, or, often, whether they tend to harm or ruin the common good.
A party that genuinely cares for the poor will keep its eye on the ordinary goods of human life, and it will attempt to foster conditions that enable the poor to secure those goods at the least cost, by their own initiative, with as little interference from third parties as possible. That does not mean low-cost daycare and food stamps. It means, with few exceptions, no need for daycare and no need for food stamps.
These conditions are not only legal. It is, after all, quite possible by law and in theory for a poor family in the United States to scratch its way into security by hard work, much self-denial, and the practice of prudential virtues now held in scorn, such as, most obviously, not getting into bed with somebody before you are married and ready to have a child. But the whole cultural environment has been corrupted, including by church leaders—who know whose pockets are deep—mostly going along with good cheer. And the economic environment is now perfectly dreadful.
If the Republicans could hold a thought in their heads for more than a few seconds, they might see an opening, a political shift that would flip the parties for many decades to come. They might, for example, steal a page from the playbook of the much-loathed Franklin Roosevelt. When you drive down the Merritt Parkway in Connecticut, you will see one handsome bridge after another, no two the same, built by men hired by the Works Progress Administration, men who had the skills to do that work but who had no one to hire them, or, and this is really my point here, boys who did not yet have the skills but came to learn them in the doing. The latter made up the main force of the Civilian Conservation Corps. The idea was to get young men out of the vice-ridden slums and put them to work outdoors, hardening their muscles and freshening their hearts, and teaching them how to use tools they had never used before, perhaps had never held or seen before. The idea was, of course, that a young man could go from the CCC into gainful employment elsewhere—why, almost anywhere.
Now, a WPA or a CCC will degenerate into a bloated make-work program riddled with political correctness, unless we keep clear in our minds what we are aiming for: working-class families, secure in their homes, with married parents and no need for both to be outside of the home. And that can only be the case if, again, the ordinary commodities of human life are easy and cheap to secure. And that can only be the case, in the world as it now is, if fuel is cheap. You cannot, right now, be an advocate for the poor all while you pursue policies that make it a hardship for them to heat their homes, fill their bellies, and drive to work, or work at all.
You must make a choice.
Likewise, you cannot be an advocate for the poor all while you pursue cultural directives that make it less and less likely—that will, rather, require a kind of herculean commitment to virtues that are mocked on all sides—for the working-class boy and girl to meet, to fall in love, to marry, and to have children in rather than out of wedlock, and to keep their vows to one another through the hard times that come to all of us, and to the poor most frequently and urgently.
You can fly the rainbow flag, you can flood the minds of young people with porn, and you can at the same time advocate policies that pour public funds into the lives of the poor, but you will be like people who punch holes in someone’s tank while giving them bottled water instead. If diabetes could be communicated, you would be like someone with such a heart for diabetics, you pursue policies that make as many diabetics as possible, while you feed them some good food and a lot of cookies, so that they never do get free of the disease. You can hold on to your sexual nihilism, or you can work for the poor, but you cannot do both at once.
You must choose.
Do I think the Republicans will seize the opening? I have no idea. We could have cheap fuel again. We could have intact families again, too, and not just for professionals. We could encourage more work that does not require a college degree. We could encourage cultural practices that keep the cost of housing low. We could—there is nothing in the universe that forbids it. For most of our expenses are self-imposed, self-inflicted.
You can’t turn back the clock? Wrong metaphor. A certain kind of rich man’s policies and hobbies are a bulldozer rolling over the poor. You can tell him to get the heck out of the bulldozer. If he won’t, you can shoot a political hole in his tank, so that the bulldozer comes to a stop whether he likes it or not.
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Anthony Esolen is a Distinguished Fellow of the Center for American Greatness and a professor and writer in residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts, in Warner, New Hampshire. Dr. Esolen is a senior editor for Touchstone Magazine and a contributing editor for Chronicles. He is a regular contributor to Crisis Magazine and the author of many books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008); Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books, 2010) and Reflections on the Christian Life (Sophia Institute Press, 2013).