Postmodern Leftism and the Founding

On January 24, in New York Magazine, Eric Levitz wrote an essay defending AOC’s proposed 70% marginal tax rate plan, drawing a direct line between Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s tax plan and Thomas Jefferson. It was a very odd essay, to be honest. Levitz was only able to draw upon one letter which Jefferson wrote to James Madison in 1785 as proof of this connection; a letter in which Jefferson expressed righteous indignation at the wide chasm that existed between the peasants and aristocrats of France under the ancienne regime and in which Jefferson proposed, as a solution, the equal distribution of property to all children in a family, since the inequality which he saw was not only intolerable but made it impossible for republican government to exist. In this way, Levitz argued that Ocasio-Cortez’s 70% marginal plan tapped “one deeply rooted strain of American thought on economic morality.”

Levitz is not the first one to do this, either. Jeff Shaw at Progressive Pulse tried to make the argument that Jefferson was an 18th-century progressive, quoting the same letter that Levitz relies on. Like Levitz, Shaw also brought into his roster Thomas Paine, claiming that Paine advocated for a progressive income tax before mentioning that a progressive estate tax was passed by Congress in 1797. And, back in the 40s, at the dedication of the Jefferson Memorial in D.C., President Franklin Roosevelt reconfigured Jefferson as a New Deal Democrat to act as a retroactive stamp for the entire New Deal itself.

We are all aware of the advantage given to our ideas if we can show that our idea isn’t radically new but actually very old. If our idea has survived throughout different ages and if great men have proposed the same thing or, at least, some cousin to our idea, then it immediately becomes a good idea or a right idea. People have been doing this for ages -- the Greeks tried to connect their civilization to the Egyptians, the Romans connected themselves to Troy, all the kingdoms of the Middle Ages claimed to be the successors of Rome -- the weight of history can be a very good way of legitimizing yourself and your agenda. So even though leftists, as a general rule, do not like the Founders and see them as white, European, slave-holding patriarchs, they still understand that if their ideas can be connected to them, they will gain weight with the rest of the country.

The problem is that progressivism cannot be wrapped around the Founders. The last thing they wanted after the treaty of Paris solidified the United States on the map as an independent country was some centralized force that could act as a menace against those rights and liberties again. That was why the Articles of Confederation made Congress so weak and why such strictures were placed on the Constitution when it was created, and why a Bill of Rights was added to that new governing document after it was ratified; why the promise of such a bill was, in some cases, the only reason why it was ratified.

This is why there was no federal income tax prior to the Civil War. While Congress had the power to tax the states to gain revenue (an improvement over the Articles of Confederation) it did not have the power to tax individuals, which was seen as the power and prerogative of the states and local governments. It is true, as Jeff Shaw pointed out on the Progressive Pulse, that a progressive property tax was passed by Congress in 1797 which required inheritance documents to be embossed with a purchased stamp; inheritances $50 or less were exempt with the price of the stamps increasing as the inheritance increased. What Shaw did not mention in his essay was that the stamp price of an inheritance of $500 was only a dollar (1/500 of the entire inheritance) and that the tax was passed as a source of revenue for the Quasi-War that was being fought against France at the time and that this tax was rescinded in 1802. While many of the Founders were not opposed to taxation per se (one of their arguments with England had not been taxation but taxation without proper representation) they would have been opposed to the exorbitant tax schemes and rates of the postmodern left. Even if some of the Founders had expressed support for such a plan, they would not have wanted the federal government in charge of it. Jefferson, in his letter to Madison, suggested that inequality such as he saw in France, might be corrected by such means as the abolition of primogeniture, the inheritance of the first born to the entirety of his father’s estate and it is true that primogeniture was abolished -- in Virginia

And for that is because the Founders believed in two basic principles that came from several different sources: the natural aristocracy of man and man’s imperfectablity. John Adams gave one of the best discourses and defenses of the natural aristocracy of man in a letter to John Taylor in 1814, differentiating between an artificial aristocracy, “inequalities of weight and superiorities of influence” that were created by laws and the natural aristocracy, the inequalities of virtues and talents that were present throughout history in every nation and village. It was the former that Jefferson reacted with such vehemence in France and not the latter which was accepted as just the natural order of things. It still is acknowledged as such when we say things like, “He’s a natural at X.” And the reason why this natural aristocracy exists in the first place is because man is not perfectable. If he was, the natural aristocracy wouldn’t exist because everyone would be equally good and gifted at everything. The fact that man is filled with vices and flaws and weaknesses is not only makes the natural aristocracy a reality, but it also makes government necessary since, as Madison put it in the Federalist Papers, “If men were angels, they would have no need for government.”

But postmodern leftists reject both principles. They reject the natural aristocracy out of a belief in what they call equality, which has no anchor in actual equality, and which can more accurately be defined as egalitarianism, the completely equal result of everyone in everything. And, they believe, that if the natural aristocracy can be abolished and everyone and everything made equal, then utopia will be that much closer to existence, if not here already. And what this requires is, ultimately, the rule of the enlightened -- themselves. The Founders acknowledged that they stood on the shoulders of giants. They also understood that their education and insights and patriotism and virtue did not give them the right to rule, per se; Washington was one of the most virtuous men of his time but when he was offered a crown, dismissed the idea at once. But the left today sees themselves as the natural rulers because they are the enlightened ones, not because they stand on the shoulders of giants but because they have cut the giants down.

It's more than policy that divides the postmodern left from the Founding; it is an entire worldview. 

On January 24, in New York Magazine, Eric Levitz wrote an essay defending AOC’s proposed 70% marginal tax rate plan, drawing a direct line between Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s tax plan and Thomas Jefferson. It was a very odd essay, to be honest. Levitz was only able to draw upon one letter which Jefferson wrote to James Madison in 1785 as proof of this connection; a letter in which Jefferson expressed righteous indignation at the wide chasm that existed between the peasants and aristocrats of France under the ancienne regime and in which Jefferson proposed, as a solution, the equal distribution of property to all children in a family, since the inequality which he saw was not only intolerable but made it impossible for republican government to exist. In this way, Levitz argued that Ocasio-Cortez’s 70% marginal plan tapped “one deeply rooted strain of American thought on economic morality.”

Levitz is not the first one to do this, either. Jeff Shaw at Progressive Pulse tried to make the argument that Jefferson was an 18th-century progressive, quoting the same letter that Levitz relies on. Like Levitz, Shaw also brought into his roster Thomas Paine, claiming that Paine advocated for a progressive income tax before mentioning that a progressive estate tax was passed by Congress in 1797. And, back in the 40s, at the dedication of the Jefferson Memorial in D.C., President Franklin Roosevelt reconfigured Jefferson as a New Deal Democrat to act as a retroactive stamp for the entire New Deal itself.

We are all aware of the advantage given to our ideas if we can show that our idea isn’t radically new but actually very old. If our idea has survived throughout different ages and if great men have proposed the same thing or, at least, some cousin to our idea, then it immediately becomes a good idea or a right idea. People have been doing this for ages -- the Greeks tried to connect their civilization to the Egyptians, the Romans connected themselves to Troy, all the kingdoms of the Middle Ages claimed to be the successors of Rome -- the weight of history can be a very good way of legitimizing yourself and your agenda. So even though leftists, as a general rule, do not like the Founders and see them as white, European, slave-holding patriarchs, they still understand that if their ideas can be connected to them, they will gain weight with the rest of the country.

The problem is that progressivism cannot be wrapped around the Founders. The last thing they wanted after the treaty of Paris solidified the United States on the map as an independent country was some centralized force that could act as a menace against those rights and liberties again. That was why the Articles of Confederation made Congress so weak and why such strictures were placed on the Constitution when it was created, and why a Bill of Rights was added to that new governing document after it was ratified; why the promise of such a bill was, in some cases, the only reason why it was ratified.

This is why there was no federal income tax prior to the Civil War. While Congress had the power to tax the states to gain revenue (an improvement over the Articles of Confederation) it did not have the power to tax individuals, which was seen as the power and prerogative of the states and local governments. It is true, as Jeff Shaw pointed out on the Progressive Pulse, that a progressive property tax was passed by Congress in 1797 which required inheritance documents to be embossed with a purchased stamp; inheritances $50 or less were exempt with the price of the stamps increasing as the inheritance increased. What Shaw did not mention in his essay was that the stamp price of an inheritance of $500 was only a dollar (1/500 of the entire inheritance) and that the tax was passed as a source of revenue for the Quasi-War that was being fought against France at the time and that this tax was rescinded in 1802. While many of the Founders were not opposed to taxation per se (one of their arguments with England had not been taxation but taxation without proper representation) they would have been opposed to the exorbitant tax schemes and rates of the postmodern left. Even if some of the Founders had expressed support for such a plan, they would not have wanted the federal government in charge of it. Jefferson, in his letter to Madison, suggested that inequality such as he saw in France, might be corrected by such means as the abolition of primogeniture, the inheritance of the first born to the entirety of his father’s estate and it is true that primogeniture was abolished -- in Virginia

And for that is because the Founders believed in two basic principles that came from several different sources: the natural aristocracy of man and man’s imperfectablity. John Adams gave one of the best discourses and defenses of the natural aristocracy of man in a letter to John Taylor in 1814, differentiating between an artificial aristocracy, “inequalities of weight and superiorities of influence” that were created by laws and the natural aristocracy, the inequalities of virtues and talents that were present throughout history in every nation and village. It was the former that Jefferson reacted with such vehemence in France and not the latter which was accepted as just the natural order of things. It still is acknowledged as such when we say things like, “He’s a natural at X.” And the reason why this natural aristocracy exists in the first place is because man is not perfectable. If he was, the natural aristocracy wouldn’t exist because everyone would be equally good and gifted at everything. The fact that man is filled with vices and flaws and weaknesses is not only makes the natural aristocracy a reality, but it also makes government necessary since, as Madison put it in the Federalist Papers, “If men were angels, they would have no need for government.”

But postmodern leftists reject both principles. They reject the natural aristocracy out of a belief in what they call equality, which has no anchor in actual equality, and which can more accurately be defined as egalitarianism, the completely equal result of everyone in everything. And, they believe, that if the natural aristocracy can be abolished and everyone and everything made equal, then utopia will be that much closer to existence, if not here already. And what this requires is, ultimately, the rule of the enlightened -- themselves. The Founders acknowledged that they stood on the shoulders of giants. They also understood that their education and insights and patriotism and virtue did not give them the right to rule, per se; Washington was one of the most virtuous men of his time but when he was offered a crown, dismissed the idea at once. But the left today sees themselves as the natural rulers because they are the enlightened ones, not because they stand on the shoulders of giants but because they have cut the giants down.

It's more than policy that divides the postmodern left from the Founding; it is an entire worldview.