Ideas -- and Jack Kemp
What moves history? Is it the power of ideas? Or is it the power of objective forces like money, for example, deployed behind ideas no more complex or sophisticated than simple self-interest? Jack Kemp, the former Republican congressman and vice presidential nominee who died of cancer over the weekend, is rightly praised -- by Michael Gerson in the Post, among others -- for believing in ideas. Gerson shrewdly observes that this helps to explain Kemp’s remarkable geniality. He was a leading illustration of the maxim that while the left is looking for heretics, the right is looking for converts. But he also was amiable by nature, which is why he made such a lousy vice presidential candidate.
As a rule, there are two ways to get a reputation in Washington for being “thoughtful,” neither of which requires having a lot of ideas rattling around in your head. In fact one method is to avoid, as much as possible, any ideas beyond a general desire for everyone to sit down in good faith and a cooperative spirit and reason things out.
Alternatively, you can simply be “unpredictable.” The more you can surprise people with your position on an issue, more thoughtful you are considered to be. This technique has served Arlen Specter, to choose a currently newsworthy example, well over the years.
Jack Kemp was not unpredictable, and he did not strike poses of moderation and statesmanship. He might be accused of a third device: Like Gary Hart on the Democratic side, he was deeply committed to the idea of ideas, as opposed to ideas themselves. And if he mentioned, say, Say’s Law (a famous principle of economics), he was likely to offer up the author’s full name -- Jean-Baptiste Say -- as a way to establish his bona fides.
But Kemp did have one idea that he was introduced to in the mid-1970s, stuck with, and saw triumph.
That, of course, is supply-side economics, and in particular its policy prescription: cut taxes and you will increase government revenues. Among Republicans, this became more like a religion than a policy, with all the fixin’s: miracles, saints (Ronald Reagan, Arthur Laffer, Kemp) and total immunity from factual refutation. Kemp probably went to his grave believing that this victory was an intellectual one -- a triumph of persuasion. In fact, it was an example on the other side of the argument: that material forces, not ideas, are what move history.
After all, the idea that tax cuts pay for themselves is not a hard sell. It comes with a built-in bribe. The inherent implausibility -- not to mention 30 years now of experience to the contrary -- is no match for money in your pocket. Tax cuts focused on the affluent might have had a tough time when incomes were becoming more unequal. But material forces carried the day in this second sense as well. An idea is one thing. An idea backed by millions of dollars invested in “think” tanks like the Heritage Foundation, along with ad campaigns, political contributions and so on, is another.
Kemp called himself a “bleeding heart conservative,” and no doubt he sincerely believed that his menu of policy favorites -- not just tax cuts, but school vouchers, urban enterprise zones, etc. -- would be good for the poor. And he might even have been right about some of them. But on their way to being good for the poor, most of them would first be good for the rich. [REVISED AND EXTENDED, 7:57 p.m.: Anyway, it’s easy to be a bleeding-heart if you believe that you can finance government programs for the poor by cutting taxes on the rich.]
Under current law, the estate tax (“death tax” to fanatical opponents) has been going down every year and is supposed to hit zero next year. It won’t actually go to zero, but the Senate is debating right now whether it should be very low or very very low. No prize for guessing where Jack Kemp would come out on that, though even Kemp did not claim that the death tax discouraged people from dying.
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