Brown Becomes a Tool of Conservatism

GEORGE F. WILL

April 09, 1992|By GEORGE F. WILL

WASHINGTON. — Washington -- It is exquisite burlesque, Jerry Brown leading tattered remnants of America's hapless left into supporting conservatism's agenda.

Conservatism has rhetorical and fiscal strategies for diminishing government power. One is to peel away government's authority by flaying it rhetorically as an incestuous jumble of corrupt elites incapable of empathy with ordinary people and incompetent at government's basic tasks -- budgeting, educating, maintaining public works. Mr. Brown's rhetoric abets this strategy.

His flat-tax proposal serves the conservative fiscal goals of reducing government power three ways -- by shrinking its

revenue base, curtailing its ability to fine-tune society's ''fairness,'' and augmenting the private sector's countervailing power.

For example, Mr. Brown would end the deductibility of state and local taxes. This would ignite state tax revolts, particularly in high-tax states such as New York, which have become liberalism's last redoubts.

Mr. Brown is not an economic man, he is a moralist, and his tax plan is a measure for political hygiene. He believes, plausibly, that radical simplification of the code would put out of business Washington's swarm of complicators who gain advantages from generally unnoticed nuances in legislation and regulations.

But his moralism stops short of acknowledging this: Today's Washington is what you get when you have a hyperactive modern state using its myriad subsidizing and regulating activities to allocate wealth and opportunity in the name of ''fairness'' and for the ultimate benefit of elected officials.

Mr. Brown disdains his party's recent obsession with the tax code's ''fairness.'' But the correct implication of his critique of Washington is that the modern state is inherently unfair because it is so susceptible to manipulation by well-heeled and well-connected interests. If Mr. Brown wants the modern state ,, that liberalism has rationalized, he should not be shocked that he gets modern Washington too.

To be on the left is to believe this: The goal of politics is to capture state power to force egalitarian social change. Mr. Brown's platform makes this problematic. The left's agenda presupposes a government strong in fiscal resources and moral authority. Mr. Brown's rhetoric -- the most acid anti-Washington rhetoric since George Wallace's (which prepared the ground for Reaganism) -- and his tax plan subvert both strengths.

Most arguments for progressive taxation are implausible or empirically unsupported. The arguments include: Progressivity is economically efficient because it stimulates rapid expansion of society's aggregate product; in a middle-class society government will not be generous to the poor unless the wealthy are thought to be paying disproportionately; the existence of the poor is caused by the existence of the wealthy.

Belief in progressivity has weakened because of the belief that progressivity is usually vitiated by arcane tax-code provisions accessible to the wealthy who can hire experts who understand them. Thus when the New York Times asked one unemployed person if Mr. Brown's flat tax would ''let the rich off the hook,'' the person replied, ''What hook?''

Walter Blum, of the University of Chicago Law School, wonders: Why does the middle class -- a whopping majority which could act imperiously -- not favor more confiscatory taxation of the wealthy? He locates the answer in America's faith in energizing society with private property and private initiative:

''Members of the middle class may believe that their own self-interests will be served better by a system which radiates the assumption that individuals are entitled to what they own rather than a system which radiates the assumption that the individuals are entitled only to what the government decrees they can keep.''

Furthermore, economic distress moves America to the right, not the left. As America's economy falters, many Americans become more wary of the economic effects of progressivity on savings, investment, entrepreneurship and industriousness generally. Also, the commitment to progressivity weakens as people become concerned that the existence of large pools of private wealth -- a prerequisite for private hospitals, universities, research centers, publications and much more -- is necessary to counteract the encroachment of government on society.

Mr. Brown and the ragtag of the left sharing his raft are riding on a wave of revulsion against the modern state that liberalism has made. And Mr. Brown is making the wave larger.

In this, as in his self-congratulatory moralism, he is a reprise of the 1960s, when the campus left played a large part in provoking the nation's move to the right.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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