The Republican tax bill is a throwback to the Gilded Age. Since the Reagan administration, economic policy in the United States has been gradually regressing to the age of robber barons. But with Congress set to dramatically rewrite the country’s fiscal rules for the exclusive benefit of the wealthy, class attitudes are now openly those of the Victorian era. This is not a normal tax plan; this is 19th-century social engineering.
The GOP is not even pretending to craft policy aimed at helping the middle class or the working poor. Exemptions for private jets, tax-advantaged private-school tuition accounts, and a rollback of the estate tax are unapologetically aimed at the heir, the rentier, and the offshored billionaire.
Meanwhile, the rest of us get lectures about the value of hard work. The legislation is a permission slip for the rich to enjoy a life divorced from the vast majority of society. Condescending paternalism is not new in American politics, but those ideals have rarely been put as forthrightly as in this comment from Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA):
I think not having the estate tax recognizes the people that are investing, as opposed to those that are just spending every darn penny they have, whether it’s on booze or women or movies.
Upon first reading, I knew I had seen this comment somewhere before. It turns out Grassley was channeling the British economist Thomas Malthus in his seminal Essay on the Principle of Population (1798):
The labouring poor, to use a vulgar expression, seem always to live from hand to mouth. Their present wants employ their whole attention, and they seldom think of the future. Even when they have an opportunity of saving they seldom exercise it, but all that is beyond their present necessities goes, generally speaking, to the ale house.
Malthus spoke to a common mindset among the upper classes that the poor were beyond help. Poverty, it was widely believed, was a sign of a weakness, and so attempts to improve their condition would only be frittered away. More money in their hands would mean more children, more drunkenness, and more vice. It was better, then, to keep wealth and privileges like education and health care in the hands of people who could use it productively—namely, the very rich.
Malthus’s essay became a rallying point for those opposed to Britain’s Poor Laws, which were an attempt by the British government to alleviate some of the problems that became apparent as urban population rapidly increased. County church parishes were required to administer charity to those without means, but the better off quietly nurtured a complaint that will be familiar to modern ears: If the poor are supported, they will never have an incentive to work.