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.
Guided by Malthus, many believed that it was necessary to humiliate and punish people for their poverty. In 1834, revisions to the Poor Laws created the workhouses so familiar to readers of Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist. These workhouses were intended to be punitive and in some cases resembled prisons (some even required the wearing of prison uniforms) in order to “encourage” the poor to work harder by making relief miserable. This idea was revived in the United States during the Clinton years when Wisconsin’s experiment with “workfare” became a blueprint for national policy. In workhouses, the Victorian poor were often subjected to pointless tasks like picking oakum (extracting rope fibers from globs of tar); it took no time at all for similar stories to emerge from US welfare reform, with recipients made to sort objects into piles that would be jumbled overnight so the task could be repeated the next day. Proposals to drug-test recipients of public aid are similar in spirit, a modern twist on Malthus’s belief that the ale house was bound to collect any money given to the poor. Grassley’s recent warnings about booze and women underscores the point.
Malthus was also a cornerstone of Social Darwinist theories, which predominated for much of the Victorian period and retain considerable appeal today in some right-wing circles. Charles Darwin himself wrote only about the world of plants and animals, not complex human societies. Yet the freewheeling capitalism of that era found much to like about Darwin’s ideas. Herbert Spencer’s phrase “the survival of the fittest” supported an understanding of poverty and social conditions that placed responsibility solely on the individual. The weak struggle and die, and the strong thrive. In an era in which the wealthy saw the rest of society largely as a pool of labor to be used and then discarded, it is easy to see how capitalism and social Darwinism embraced each other.
This bleak 19th-century worldview grew in part from the social dislocation that resulted from the Industrial Revolution. Agriculture increased in productivity and created surplus population in rural areas that migrated to urban areas where unskilled labor was in high demand. Neither government nor society were prepared for such an influx of people, and cities quickly became dirty, crowded, and occasionally appalling agglomerations of poverty.
The upper classes offered a range of responses to the problems of the urban poor from charity to contempt. But the argument that the working poor deserved scorn was bolstered by the popularity of social Darwinism. Newly congested cities created the impression of overpopulation (another interest of Malthus). So why, many of the upper classes wondered, should the poor not simply be allowed to fend for themselves and allow the strongest to survive? It was, after all, in keeping with the laws of nature.
That link between capitalism and Social Darwinism has never been fully broken. It is hard to read the GOP tax bill or listen to Grassley without hearing those echoes. On the right, everything late-19th-century is popular again: child labor (Betsy DeVos and Newt Gingrich swear it’s not so bad!), debtors’ prisons, Victorian workhouses, and the economic resegregation of education.
In Victorian times, disdain for the idea of shared wealth or social responsibility was built into the system. The United States had no federal income tax until the 16th Amendment was ratified in 1913, and in 19th-century Britain, income tax never exceeded 5 percent (and often was under 1 percent). The governments imposed almost no obligations on the rich, and the economy demanded little more than a workforce kept alive at a subsistence level.
Today’s 1 percent, especially those with multigenerational wealth, have only been able to dream of such treatment until now. Repealing the estate tax and other tax-bill provisions bring them a bit closer to the undemanding era in which their ancestors enjoyed wealth.
In the United States, the wealthy apparently see neither this tax bill nor its goal of making them even more staggeringly wealthy as rapacious or immoral. It codifies what they already believe: That everyone else is trying to steal what is rightfully theirs, and they deserve it, because they’re on top. The worldview is self-reinforcing; Wealth is evidence that one is superior, and superiority is an argument for more wealth.
Wonkier wonks can and will dissect the economic consequences of the new tax legislation as they are uncovered. More alarming than any loophole, write-off, or giveaway is the sheer brazenness of the vision of American society depicted among all the tax-code arcana. Republican appeals to “economic growth” as the driver of these policy changes were half-hearted at best and unsupported by any reasonable reading of the data. But this is not about data. This bill is about the secession of the elite from the rest of society to an extent unseen since the 19th century.
Ironically, Malthus and his followers believed that, while their treatment of the poor was cruel in the short run, it was ultimately humane. The weakest members of society would suffer, but over time society would become stronger. Aristocratic Victorians and American robber barons similarly believed that the suffering of the poor would force them to build character and strength.
There can be no pretending that’s true today. Only willful ignorance can convince modern lawmakers that the path to economic growth and social prosperity is lined with policies that concentrate wealth into fewer hands. If Congress wants to do it anyway, then its motives are obvious.
It has long been apparent that bromides about the benefits to the rest of easing the tax burden of the rich are for decorative purposes only. The GOP tax bill is, if nothing else, honest in the way it lays bare its true purpose: Reinforcing a social order in which the rich are vastly superior to the rest of us and, most importantly, not obligated to pretend otherwise.