National anger at corruption and incompetence in Washington centers increasingly on a peculiar, profoundly maddening quirk of the Obama administration: its consistent, irrational impulse to reward bad behavior and to punish constructive conduct.
The now powerful Tea Party movement began with an on-air rant in February, 2009 by Rick Santelli of CNBC, who complained of a costly new program to protect homeowners who had recklessly committed themselves to unaffordable mortgages; he suggested a “Chicago Tea Party” as a means of protest. Despite the indignation Santelli ignited, various Obama programs continue to tax Americans who’ve never missed a mortgage and send the money to rescue or subsidize their neighbors who made risky, irresponsible decisions at the height of the housing bubble. In a similar spirit, the Obamacare health reforms will provide subsidized insurance or Medicaid benefits for millions of families who previously declined to insure themselves, while bringing higher taxes and rising premiums to those who previously sacrificed to pay for their own protection.
The immigration issue provokes explosive rage because of the same sense that government plans to reward those who entered the country illegally, giving them special advantages over law-abiding newcomers who patiently played by the rules. For most people, the underlying problem isn’t the immigrants themselves, but the fear that Washington’s misguided compassion will encourage more unauthorized new arrivals. A revealing CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll in May found overwhelming support for Arizona’s tough immigration law, with 71% of respondents who want “more crackdowns on employers who hire illegal immigrants.” At the same time, a startling 80% say they would back a program “to allow illegal immigrants already in the U.S. to stay here and apply for legal residency if they had a job and paid back taxes.” In other words, the public objects to rewarding bad conduct but shows overwhelming support for policies that bestow benefits for a constructive course of action.
Perhaps the most glaring example of the administration’s tendency to punish beneficial behavior involves the president’s commitment to restore the hated death tax. The core of the American dream involves providing a better life for the next generation, but the tax rate for big estates that parents want to leave to their children is scheduled to rise to an obscene 55% on January 1, 2011. In essence, the estate tax singles out for particularly harsh treatment those who have demonstrated the greatest productivity, prudence and familial devotion by patiently building their resources. It’s not a tax on earning, since those who made the money already paid their taxes when they earned it. It is, rather, a tax on saving, on providing for the next generation. The death tax (which Democrats seek to restore even before its scheduled return) encourages 80-year-olds to squander their savings in Vegas, for high living and decadent self indulgence—since the government only goes after what’s left behind, not what they spend on themselves. In other words, Washington policy once again cracks down on good conduct (saving and wealth formation) and encourages irresponsibility (spending every dime before you croak).
For small-government conservatives, it’s frightening enough when Washington intrudes on every aspect of our lives with its approval or disapproval. But it becomes utterly unacceptable when that ever-expanding nanny state seems perversely determined to reward the bad and penalize the good, encouraging the worst inclinations in our society while burdening and castigating those who contribute the most to the general welfare.