August 30, 2014
Some years ago, William H. Gates, Sr. coauthored a book entitled Wealth and Our Commonwealth . Its message was that the estate tax, hated by many of the wealthy and their sycophants, is important not only for revenue but because "concentrations of wealth and power distort our democratic institutions and economic system and undermine social cohesion." Gates’ choice of the word "commonwealth" is interesting. Four of our states  are called commonwealths, a reflection presumably of the original meaning of the word: "Body politic founded on law for the common ‘weal,’ or good." However, dictionaries tell us that "commonwealth," meaning public welfare or the general good, is "archaic" or "obsolete." As with definition, so with politics: the notion of cohesion, of social solidarity, of our being in it together, has become quaint; the country is divided, with no sense of the common good or common welfare.
Even the term "common" is suspect. David Brat, who made news by defeating Majority Leader Eric Cantor, declared, clumsily but emphatically: " ‘Common’ - anything I'm against. United Nations. Common everything. If you say common, by definition you're saying it's top-down. I'm going to force this on you. That's what dictators do."
The conservatives on the Supreme Court are equally dismissive of anything that smacks of common interest. In McCutcheon v. FEC , Chief Justice Roberts, writing for the plurality of four, noted that the dissent disagreed with his focus on rich individuals’ right to speech (spending) because, according to Roberts, "it fails to take into account ‘the public’s interest’ in ‘collective speech’." Note the ironic quotation marks. Of the eight times the word collective appears in the plurality opinion, it is in quotes seven times, as if a collective or common interest were a foreign — or socialist — concept.
It wasn’t always so. Tony Judt described the change which took place in the Eighties: a shift from "the pursuit of public goods to a view of the world best summed up in Margaret Thatcher's notorious bon mot : ‘there is no such thing as society, there are only individuals and families’." Meanwhile, in the United States, Ronald Reagan declared that government "was no longer the solution—it was the problem."
Reagan’s political philosophy contrasts sharply with that of a more notable Republican: "The object of government is the welfare of the people." Or, again: "The National Government belongs to the whole American people, and where the whole American people are interested, that interest can be guarded effectively only by the National Government. The betterment which we seek must be accomplished, I believe, mainly through the National Government."
That view of government is not the only issue on which Theodore Roosevelt differed from Mr. Reagan and his even more regressive acolytes. Consider the matter of common interests: "I hold that while man exists it is his duty to improve not only his own condition, but to assist in ameliorating mankind." Imagine a Republican member of the 2014 House saying that.
Present-day conservatives would be shocked by Roosevelt’s views on working people and on capital: "Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration." That harks back to an even earlier form of Republicanism: "If that remark was original with me," TR said, "I should be even more strongly denounced as a Communist agitator than I shall be anyhow. It is Lincoln’s."
The contrast is equally great as to the influence of money:
[O]ur government, National and State, must be freed from the sinister influence or control of special interests. Exactly as the special interests of cotton and slavery threatened our political integrity before the Civil War, so now the great special business interests too often control and corrupt the men and methods of government for their own profit. . . . For every special interest is entitled to justice, but not one is entitled to a vote in Congress, to a voice on the bench, or to representation in any public office. The Constitution guarantees protection to property, and we must make that promise good. But it does not give the right of suffrage to any corporation.
The true friend of property, the true conservative, is he who insists that property shall be the servant and not the master of the commonwealth; . . . The citizens of the United States must effectively control the mighty commercial forces which they have called into being.
The really big fortune, the swollen fortune, by the mere fact of its size, acquires qualities which differentiate it in kind as well as in degree from what is possessed by men of relatively small means. Therefore, I believe in a graduated income tax on big fortunes, and . . . a graduated inheritance tax on big fortunes . . . .
In a sense, its inaccurate to state that the contemporary Republican Party follows Reagan, as its views are well to his right. However, it’s apt in that Reagan led a shift in attitude that his followers called a revolution, more accurately a reaction. It is too much to expect Republicans to rediscover a better path so long as they win elections. If that ever ends, through demographic change or the end of gerrymandering, they may rediscover the virtue, if only politically, of thinking about the common good.
57. Gates and Collins, Wealth and Our Commonwealth: Why America Should Tax Accumulated Fortunes
58. Kentucky, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Virginia
59. Britannica Concise Encyclopedia
60. Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English language (1989); Compact Oxford English Dictionary (2002)
61. Justice Thomas concurred only in the result.
62. Judt, Ill Fares the Land , pp. 96-97 (2010)
63. All Roosevelt quotes are from his "New Nationalism" speech, August 31, 1910.