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18.9.03

Heightening the contradictions

There's been a lot of talk lately about Jacob Levy's latest article, which revisits the Wall Street Journal's infamous "Lucky Duckies" editorial. The Journal's editors proposed to raise taxes on the poor, thus turning them into tax-hating Republicans. Levy suggests that the general form of this argument -- "we need to subject everybody to the same rules (e.g. high taxes), so that we don't have the system run by people who aren't personally affected by the rules they make (e.g. poor, non-tax-paying voters)" -- shows up in other contexts, often offered by the left. His first and clearest example is proposals to reinstate the draft, so that the Presidents and Congress members who make the decision to go to war have to worry about their own sons being called off to fight. This proposal is a response to the feeling that the government can be cavalier about starting wars because they and their families won't bear the costs, just as the poor are expected (by the logic of "Lucky Duckies") to be cavalier about raising taxes on the rich because they won't have to pay another cent.

What's interesting about these two examples (but not all of Levy's examples, such as making the king subject to the law of the land) is the motivation that the change is supposed to give the person who is brought into the system. The Wall Street Journal didn't believe that high taxes are just fine, so long as the poor people who vote for them have to share in paying for them, and the people who propose the draft don't think that going to war is fine, so long as Senators are willing to send their own sons to fight. The purpose in both cases is to make the affected parties hate the system, turning Lucky Duckies into tax-cutters and belligerent elected officials into pacifists.

Put that way, the logic of these proposals resembles the Leninist notion of "heightening the contradictions." HtC proposes that a revolutionary group would oppose reforms that move society in the right direction, because reform dissipates people's anger at the system. The Fordist economy that the industrialized world had after World War II is a case in point -- by granting workers comfortable wages, business owners took away much of their motivation to join radical communist movements that would try to overthrow capitalism. Instead, HtC proposes that we make the system so burdensome that its victims eventually explode in a revolutionary backlash.

"Lucky Duckies" is, in essence, a proposal to heighten the contradictions of the taxation system for the poor. By temporarily going in the wrong direction -- toward high taxes -- we could motivate the masses to backing a revolution that would wipe out everyone's taxes. Similarly, if elected officials have to contemplate their own sons dying in battle, they would rebel against the use of military force (the parallels are clearer if you think of this happening when a war is going on, rather than while the government is deciding whether to start a new war).

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