By now, almost everybody knows who Joe the plumber is. Mentioned about 15 times in the last presidential debate, Joe Wurzelbacher, a plumber from Toledo, asked Barack Obama if the candidate's tax plan would raise his taxes. Senator Obama replied, "It's not that I want to punish your success. I just want to make sure that everybody that is behind you, that they have a chance for success too." Obama added, "I think when you spread the wealth around, it's good for everybody."
Surely, now it must be time to talk openly about the S-word - socialism.
For months, conservative bloggers have been writing about Barack Obama's membership in the New Party, a political movement aligned with the Democratic Socialists of America. The New Party endorsed his successful 1996 Illinois state Senate campaign and Obama encouraged New Party involvement in his voter education and registration efforts. According to a 1995 issue of the Democratic Socialists of America newsletter, the New Party required endorsed candidates to sign a contract to have a "visible and active relationship" with the party. While the New Party has waned, the Democratic Socialists of America remain an active movement.
What do the Democratic Socialists of America believe? According to their by-laws, they
...share a vision of a humane social order based on popular control of resources and production, economic planning, equitable distribution, feminism, racial equality and non-oppressive relationships.
Surely, we can all agree with the values of racial and gender equality and non-oppressive relationships. Free market adherents believe in those principles as well. However, one may now see the intellectual foundation for Barack Obama's answer to Mr. Wurzelbacher. Redistributing wealth is part and parcel of the Obama tax plan. He just didn't use the S-word.
And why not? Despite periodic, and hopefully temporary, interventions in free markets, (such as is occurring in the financial sector), most Americans do not want to live in a socialist nation. We value the kinds of personal and economic freedoms inherent in a free market economy.
When the productive plumber protests that his tax burden will increase, Obama intuits the problem inherent in "equitable distribution." He says to the questioner, "It's not that I want to punish your success..." However, punished success is just the mischief that successful Americans fear. Obama's desire to "spread the wealth around" may not come with malevolent intent, but to be sure, policies such as are advocated by the Democratic Socialists may result in inhibitions of initiative and innovation.
Rudolph Penner recently said on a C-Span call-in show that capitalism isn't perfect but it is better than the alternatives. Indeed, many have suggested that the current mortgage mess derives from well-intended attempts to spread the wealth around. In unraveling the causes of the housing bust, one finds multiple targets of blame. However, it seems clear that government policies which encouraged home ownership beyond a borrower's means were part of the chaos. In light of the federal government's inability to manage markets, it is a fair question to ask: Do we need more central planning or less?
Thanks to John McCain and the presidential debate, the questions Joe the plumber asked are now part of the public debate. Should the nation move to the left and embrace the principles of democratic socialism or should we seek to revive the best in free markets and free trade?
I fear many Americans enamored with Mr. Obama's ability to revive the economy may be surprised that he intends instead to remake it.