by Mario Rizzo
Some people rest the case for representative democracy on the idea that its decisions express the “will of the people.” Those who believe this have never thought deeply about what they are saying. I am inclined, in response to these believers, to use my favorite paraphrase of Ludwig Wittgenstein, “You can mouth the words, but you cannot think the thought.”
What is the will of the people? Whatever it is, it is certainly not without contradictions, illusions, misinformation, and wishful-thinking – just like a lot of individual thought. But as an aggregation of individual thought it is a construct used to justify all sorts of things. In some people’s minds, this construct has claim to moral authority.
This is not the place to expose the superstitions involved. But it is the place to point out some interesting findings about “the people’s” wish to tax the “rich” more heavily to pay for government benefits. I refer to an interesting column by Karl Rove in the Dec. 5th Wall Street Journal. Mr. Rove does not present these findings to illustrate the point that I am making, but that is not important.
It is often overlooked that Americans can hold conflicting opinions on the same subject at the same time. While Americans favor raising taxes on the wealthy, a Winston Group poll two weeks ago (conducted for the GOP House leadership) found just 26% of respondents agreeing that “given the state of the deficit, those making over $250,000 a year should have to pay 40% of their income in federal taxes.” Some 68% disagreed. This is relevant because Mr. Obama wants wealthy Americans to pay 39.6% of their income in federal taxes, plus additional levies that would bring the total bite to at least 44.6%.
In the same survey, 60% said they believe taxes shouldn’t go up for “small businesses that make over $250,000 a year.” Yet the Obama plan would raise taxes on half of all small business income. As to the “better way to raise tax revenues,” 61% said they prefer “reforming the tax code to lower tax rates and close loopholes,” as House Republicans have proposed, while just 28% back Mr. Obama’s plan for “raising tax rates on those making over $250,000 a year.”
(Rove’s point is that Republicans therefore do have possibly-winning arguments to deploy in opposition to these tax increases.)
So what is the will of the people? Such ambiguities are not unexpected in view of the fact that few people have the time or the incentive to learn the various facts involved.
The will of the people is a construct that is quite malleable to the political purposes of whichever group is better at manipulation.