To mangle a quote from Voltaire, if the middle class did not exist, politicians would need to invent them. The middle class is the Swiss Army knife of the political campaign, the tool good for every purpose1. Either party, any ideology, any issue, the middle class provide a sure and easy position for a politician to adopt. You don't really want to cut taxes, but don't want your opponent to win points with his across the boards tax cuts? Say you will cut "middle class" taxes, implying he wants to give money to the rich (if you liberal) or throw it to the poor (if conservative). And when the time comes, should you win, you can fulfill the promise without doing much of anything. After all, no one knows who the middle class are2. You can write in a tax break for those earning $22K to $22.2 K and claim you did what you promised. As I said, the perfect solution for every political problem.
As I have written before3, I have a problem with any political position predicated upon the idea the government has a special interest in any class or category, be it "the poor", "the workers", "the middle class", or even non-financial categories, such as "farmers"4, or "small business"5. The purpose of a proper, free, representative government, predicated upon the protection of rights, is -- quite simply -- to treat each individual as equal. To allow the state to take cognizance of wealth or profession or earnings or employment status or race or sex or anything else6, is to create a state where individuals are not equal, which means that the idea of a minimal government protecting rights is undermined.
Now, some will say that everyone is still equal, those who favor helping the middle class just want to give them some assistance, a helping hand, a leg up, whatever. But that, no matter how it is phrased, is the problem with contemporary government. Aid to one group is identical with disadvantage to another. If you give the middle class a tax break, it means everyone else pays more than they do. If you give a few bonus points in the name of affirmative action, you penalize everyone else. And if you give one company exemption from this regulation or that, you effectively impose special requirements on all other firms7. In other words, granting a favor is to impose a penalty on everyone else8.
But that is an issue I have brought up several times, so let us leave it alone for now. Instead, let us look at the "middle class" itself, and see how problematic it is aside from questions of the proper role of government.
The first, and most obvious issue, is that most people seem to think they are middle class. With the exception of the poorest individuals, a handful of the extremely rich, and a smattering of workers whose political orientation makes them insist on seeing themselves as "working class", almost everyone you will ever meet in the US will see him or her self as middle class. It is an incredibly broad category, at least in terms of those who identify themselves as members.
Unfortunately, politicians don't accept self-identification for membership in the middle class. For them, "middle class" is a certain, often relatively narrow, segment of the population. As my opening example shows, it is a segment which is terribly ill-defined, and which can be redefined as suits the current debate9, but even the most generous definitions never go so far as to include even 50% of the public. And yet, from fast food cashiers to multi-million dollar liability lawyers, well over 75% of the US considers itself a member of this group.
Which is why it is so useful to politicians.
As I described in "Those Other People" (and also "In a Nutshell"), politicians often sell restrictive, even insulting10, legislation by telling voters they are clearly competent enough to not need such laws, but some ill defined "masses" out there are not, and need the law to tell them what to do. And so we have the pathetic phenomenon of a vast majority of people feeling, for example, they could manage their own retirement11, or handle a fire arm responsibly12, but accepting tremendous regulations because "the majority" could not13.
The middle class works in much the same way, with huge numbers imaging they will reap every benefit promised to the middle class, and avoid all the hardships piled upon "the rich", while in truth, the benefits, if any ever exist, fall upon a very small subset of those imagining themselves to be middle class. And yet, despite failing to receive any benefit time after time, the majority of voters continue to imagine they are the middle class about which the politicians are speaking.
But that is not the only purpose the middle class serves, though it is the most obvious. The middle class also serves a psychological function. Promising to do something for "the middle class" is the ultimate safe move. It is even better than promising to aid "the working poor". It is safer than aiding "children in need" or "who go to bed hungry". It is even safer than promising to soak the rich or tax "unearned income"14. In the minds of voters, the middle class is the ultimate virtuous group, hardworking, ethical, believing all the right things, doing all the right things, they are exactly what the voter wants America to be. And why not? As the voter imagines himself to be the ultimate example of the middle class, it is obvious that the middle class must be --for lack of a better description -- pretty much just like him. And thus any promise made to aid the middle class will be seen as a perfectly justified action
All of which serves to explain my opening statement. The middle class is not just "the backbone of our nation", "the source of jobs"15 and "our future", as ever so many politicians have told us repeatedly, they are the ultimate rhetorical device for politicians. And thus, had history not accidentally created such a useful description, politicians would inevitably have been forced to create one.
1. The second best is probably "the working class", who are also adored by right and left -- though the right sometimes worries about your ideological leanings if you mention them too often, or over emphasize the "class" aspect -- and third is probably "the working poor", more popular with left than right, but that "working" makes them at least modestly acceptable to both.
2. A similar useful tool is "the rich", though mostly used by the left, and the more populist candidates on the nominal right. (See "Beware Populist Deception", "Protectionism Right and Left", "Fear of Trade", "Sleight of Hand", "Government by Emotion", "Consumer Protection", "A New Look at Intervention" and "Fear of the 'Big'".). No one worries over-much about taxes on "the rich", as they are sure that they are safely "middle class", and so these sort of campaign promises fly over the heads of most voters until they discover "the rich" means everyone earning over $30K a year. (Well, to be fair, the most audacious redefining of "rich" I can recall succeeding was when Clinton defined it down to around $50K a year, which is still a pretty broad definition of "rich".)
3. See "What About Everyone Else?" For a discussion of the tactic I describe, redefining "middle class" and "working families", see "More Influential Than I Thought?" and "So, What is "Change"?" And to see an earlier mention of the nebulous nature of "the middle class", see "Stupid Quote of the Day (March 10, 2015)".
4. See "Bad Economics Part 19", "The World's Oldest Myth", "The Inevitable Corruption of Protectionism", "Government Cheese", "The Frontier, Green Spaces and Famine" and "The Consumption Curve".
5. See "Bad Economics Part 19", "Small Business Fetish", "When Help Hurts", "The Little Guy Can't Compete", "Fear of the "Big"", "Stupid Quotes of the Day (January 17, 2012)" and "Stupid Quote of the Day (March 8, 2015)".
6. Obviously, in a few specific cases, some of these factors need to be considered. Laws can, in specific cases where relevant, consider sex, familial ties or age, but these are unusual cases, and mostly relate to matters where sex makes a difference in terms of physical capabilities (eg. men cannot become pregnant or bear children), or competence (the question of juvenile competency for consent, contract and culpability, and parent liability for juveniles).
7. Obviously, in an ideal minimal state, many of these would not be an issue (see "Minimal Reforms", "The Case for Small Government", "The Problem of Established Perspectives", "The Basics", "Denying Reality", "The Free Market Solution", "The Cost of Big Government", "In Praise of Contracts" and "There Are Other Solutions"), as taxes would be either flat or handled through some voluntary scheme (see "Two Thoughts on Taxation", "Truths About Taxation" and "The Foolishness of Corporate Taxes"), regulations would be minimal or nonexistent, and education would be private and preferences based on race or other factors an issue for the trustees and not the state. But until we reach such an ideal, to move toward a more perfect state, we should strive to be as blind to any individual differences as possible, unless absolutely essential to the protection for rights.
8. I should discuss this again in the future, as it is also a significant point in terms of subsidies and patronage for arts and business. (See "Patronage", "Patronage Versus Choice", "The Other 99%", "Zero Sum Games" and "Canada, Subsidies, The Free Market and Intractible Reality".) Once you begin to give subsidies to one group, it acts as a penalty to others, who have to provide full funding on their own, while the patronage recipients start out with full or partial funds given to them. So, though described as helping artists, or small business, or what have you, in truth these are impediments to the many others who have to compete against those who are given these subsidies, and thus start at a disadvantage. (To see a simple example, imagine the painter who has to work full time versus the one who is government subsidized and can spend all his time painting, shmoozing gallery owners and and setting up exhibitions. Is it not clear that the "aid" to one is also a detriment to the other, who has to compete for attention with a rival who can spend all his time promoting himself?) For a discussion of possible consequences of such actions see "The War of All Against All", "Government Funding and the Creation of Strife", "Missionary Zeal and Human Discord", "How the Government Corrupts Relationships", "Hard Cases Make Bad Law", "The Consequences of Bad Laws", "Why Freedom Is Essential" and "The Road to Violence".
9. Middle class can be redefined not only to allow broad promises to be applied to narrow groups, it is also useful for manipulating statistics. "Middle class" can be redefined to easily show that any given measure had a benefit which largely accrued to the "middle class".
10. I suppose it is a matter of perspective, but personally I find it insulting to be told I am not competent to plan my own retirement, decide what is a suitable wage or working conditions, and so on. Nor is it simply a matter of economic control, laws control our social and personal decisions almost as closely, the liberal association with "free speech" from the 1960s through 1980s having since died off in the age of political correctness and trigger warnings, leaving no one to limit the expansion of government interference with every aspect of life. (To be clear, even in the period from about 1964 to 1988 or so, the idea that liberals protected social freedoms and conservative economic ones was not accurate, but it did hold a grain of truth. Today, liberals do not even have that much respect for social freedoms, and, sadly, many conservatives have given up on economic freedom as well. -- See "Economic Versus Social" and "The Political Spectrum".)
11. See "Social Security is not Insurance", "Selling Yourself Cheap" and "Not Quite True".
12. See "Arrogance and Gun Control" and "The Weakest Gun Control Argument".
13. An interesting parallel is found in those surveys which ask how individuals think the nation's economy is doing, and how their own finances are. Inevitably, they are largely happy with their own lot, but think the nation as a whole is in horrible shape. Obviously, both the belief in an economic crisis whose evidence they do not see around them, and a belief in general incompetence, they see in neither themselves or their acquaintances, have their origins in mass media, as well as specific political ideologies, but that is a topic for other essays. (Though a broad overview of my thoughts can be found in my, as yet incomplete, "Liberalism, Its Origins and Consequences". Other example can be found in "Big Government, Arrogance and Part-Time Psychopathy", "For Your Own Good -- The Problem with Subjective Rights" and "Intellect and Politics", among other essays.)
14. See "The 'Lucky' Rich", "Those Greedy Bankers", "Greed and the Price of Oil", "Evil and Greed", "Government by Emotion", "Weasel Words and Hollow Words", "Selfishness as Reason - "Wants", "Needs", "Fairness" and Other Guises for Arbitrary Decisions", "Misleading Terminology", "Greed Versus Evil", "Brief Discussion of Envy", "Envy and Analogy", "Envy Kills", "Envy Kills II" and "Stupid Quotes of the Day (January 2, 2012)".
15. I would argue that the "idle rich" and "unproductive heirs and heiresses" fit the description better. (See "The Benefits of Inequalities of Wealth" and "The Irrationality of Government Redistribution".) Nor would I agree with the description about job creation, as it shares some of the same problems as similar descriptions of small businesses. (See "Stupid Quote of the Day (March 8, 2015)") Then again, it is difficult to precisely locate what segment of our society fits any such broad descriptions, nor is it really meaningful anyway. But since politicians seem inclined to make such statements, I can't help myself and, from time to time, must knock them down.