I was watching an interview with Bernie Sanders today, and was rather surprised to hear him stating up front he would raise taxes. Granted, he couched it in terms of "the richest Americans" and "big corporations" being made to pay "their fair share" (whatever that might mean), but it was still surprising to hear. And my first thought was "did he learn nothing from Mondale?" After all, America knows Democrats are going to raise taxes. Even Republicans are a 50-50 shot on that question, as both parties spend like drunken sailors on their first night in port. But we know for sure that some groups are going to get really slammed by Democrats, and most likely everyone else will take a smaller hit as well. However, sayings so is politically unacceptable. Instead, the tradition has been for Democrats to say they will cut taxes for "working Americans" or "the middle class" (cf "The Oh So Useful Middle Class"), which is code for "everyone else get out their checkbooks".
As soon as I had that thought, I was struck by another. Why do we expect Democrats to behave that way? Or politicians in general? And I was instantly reminded of my essay "The Presumption of Dishonesty". What is it about us that, even if we know Democrats will raise taxes, we refuse to vote for those who are honest about it, while supporting most fervently those who are most dishonest about it? What is it about us that forces politicians to lie?
And make no mistake, while we complain about lying politicians, there is no one to blame but ourselves. Politicians do not lie out of some innate dishonesty*, but rather because dishonesty works, and it works because we, the voters, insist upon it. We are perfectly willing to elect and reelect those who say they won't impose taxes and yet do, but we are loathe to elect someone who admits up front taxes will rise. Nor is it just taxes, any unpleasant reality, anything that imposes a burden, we want to hear nothing about it. Even when it is the centerpiece of a policy, we insist they hide it. And it goes to absurd lengths. For example, even when Republicans were winning ground on reforming government, cutting costs and slashing departments, still no one would state the obvious, that government would be doing less. Even though the whole concept was predicated upon the idea that government was doing too much, was costing too much, was too big, no one would admit some services -- services they argued were not legitimate government functions -- would be going away. Even though the entire argument made clear that some departments would be shrinking or vanishing, still we could not accept hearing that anyone would have to bite the bullet. And so we had the spectacle of people talking of shrinking government while tacitly implying nothing would really change. Similarly, the FairTax, predicated upon the concept of government inefficiency and bloat, still tries to sell itself as "revenue neutral"**, essentially saying "government is bloated and inefficient, but it can stay so in all areas except tax collection". It has to be one of the more absurd campaigns I have heard, but since we can't stand to hear anyone will be deprived of any services, it is probably a sound approach.
And that is what troubles me more than anything else. As I argued in "The Single Greatest Weakness" (as well as "Deadly Cynicism" and "Don't Blame the Politicians"), we are to blame for most of what we complain about. The Constitution is wonderful, a brilliant document with only a few flaws***, but even were it perfect, it still would not matter if the voters insist on bigger government and lying politicians. And the recent behavior of voters convinces me we are lying to ourselves more than ever. Calling Donald Trump a conservative icon? That makes efforts to paint Romney and McCain as conservative seem honest by comparison. But even ignoring the incredible self-delusion of the Trump faction, still the voters, of both parties, seem bent on demanding politicians lie to them, government deceive them, and things continue largely unchanged, except perhaps for a few pet peeves. And thus, despite the claims of both sides to be ready for tremendous changes, I am doubtful that things will truly become much different, regardless of which party is in control. From the behavior of voters, I have a feeling the next few elections will be won by politicians promising the moon, talking the line of "significant change" and in the end doing very little different from those currently in office.
* Actually, many politicians may be innately dishonest, but that is because voters demand dishonesty and thus the career path of politician tends to select for the most effective liars. So even if politicians are innately dishonest, it is because we demand behaviors from politicians best provided by those who are best at deceiving us.
** I am quite skeptical of this claim as well as many others put forth by the FairTax crowd. I won't go into it here, but it strikes me, among other things, that the "embedded taxes" are not evenly distributed as the model assumes, and thus replacing them with a flat sales tax would effect different industries differently. Also, many taxes keep certain industries viable, or at least support their profits, meaning their removal could simply not be "revenue neutral". For a much more detailed examination see "Government by Emotion", "Single Point of Failure and the FairTax", "More Thoughts on the FairTax", "An Interesting Debate", "Yes and No", "The Problems of Spending and Taxes", "Two Thoughts on Taxation", "The Failings of Sales Taxes", "The FairTax's Liberal Assumptions", "An Interesting Analogy, "Why I Dislike the FairTax ", "The Best Argument Against the FairTax ", "Truths About Taxation", "A Partial Reply to yt_knight", "The VAT Versus The FairTax", "What we need", "Making Taxes Hurt" and "Inequitable Taxation", as well as the MANY other essays I have written on the topic.
*** Mostly the "general welfare" clause and the commerce clause, both of which have been used to justify just about anything. I would also argue, the second amendment, by making "arms" a special category actually makes it easier to regulate them than had they been treated as just another good. And, finally, I would argue, as did some of the founders, that adding the Bill of Rights was a mistake as it did seem to suggest to some that those rights are the only ones specially protected, even though the final item clearly stated otherwise. See "Minimal Reforms", "Stray Thoughts" and "Paradoxical Outcome".