Beyond the dueling sound bites and apocalyptic rhetoric of Washington’s increasingly desperate battle of the budget, President Obama enjoys an automatic advantage with his relentless calls to tax the rich. These demands resonate with the deep American instinct to endorse the underdog, while punishing (or at least diminishing) the privileged and the powerful.
The Republicans may insist with flawless logic that placing additional burdens on the nation’s most productive citizens does nothing to create private sector jobs: after all, how will seizing profits from business people help them to invest or expand with their reduced resources? But in the arena of public opinion, arguments must appeal to emotion as well as common sense and reach the heart rather than merely persuading the mind. It’s not enough to demonstrate that attacking the rich is misguided in practice; it’s also essential to show that it’s wrong as a matter of principle.
The only way to overcome the traditional populist preference for “the people over the powerful” is through impassioned affirmation of another long-standing national value: the conviction that beneficial behavior deserves better results and more encouragement than destructive, damaging courses of action. Americans may not favor rich over poor, but they certainly don’t prefer the irresponsible to the productive, or the hapless over the helpful. Sure, most of us who felt like geeks and losers in high school may harbor envious resentment toward the class presidents and prom queens, but that doesn’t mean we want them punished with unmerited detentions or unearned bad grades for their popularity and success.
When you consider people who’ve created wealth and built beautiful lives for their families, it’s natural and healthy to want to emulate them. But it’s profoundly unhealthy to want to annihilate them.
After all, the rich in this country for the most part do precisely what we hope all Americans will do with their lives: working hard, earning money, paying taxes, and spending or investing what’s left. Industrious pursuit of profit remains the best way to stimulate recovery and prosperity, and most people understand that we should welcome, not discourage, the continuation of this pattern.