The cloister-like stillness of American life will soon be shattered by a presidential election campaign and, as usual, the list of those who are running, but should not be, is longer than the list of those who are not running but should be. The latter includes Republican Rep. Richard Cheney of Wyoming. It includes Democratic Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey, whose star, already well-risen, rose farther in the firmament when the Finance Committee, of which he isju a member, threw up its hands, threw in the towel and did tax reform his way.
The committee abandoned the traditional use of the tax code as an instrument for micro-managing distributive justice. It decided to simplify the code, killing many benefits to pay for lower rates for individuals. The hope is that this will mean more economic decisions made for reasons other than tax advantage, and that that will enhance economic growth. Improved growth presumably will mean not perfect justice but more justice than is produced by a political auction in which society's big battalions bid for advantages from tax-code nuances written for them.
A paradox of post-New Deal politics is that "big government," meaning government regulating economic activity in order to promote equity and efficiency, has been defended by liberals as a protector of the weak, but has been used by the strong. The well-heeled (which means big labor as well as big business, and big business includes agribusiness) are well represented in Washington by people skilled at bending public power to private advantage.
Because statism in the nation's economic life has been rationalized by liberals and exploited by nonliberal interests, it is fascinating that Bradley, a Democrat from a Northeastern industrial state, has shaped a tax bill that is a large step back from statism.
In a symposium, "Left, Right and Baby Boom" published by the Cato Institute, William Schneider says one Democratic problem is "the identification of the Democrats with the government and the identification of government with the establishment and the status quo." Another participant in the symposium, Michael Barone, notes that, "Liberals have a fairly basic problem right now: No substantial bloc of voters wants a substantially larger role for government in the economy."
Terry Nichols Clark says this trend began locally in 1974, when half of the cities reversed or slowed the growth of expenditures. To an increasing number of Americans, fiscal issues are more important than government-services issues. Paul Weaver says this trend amounts to (he will suffer for this in the next life) "proto-neoliberalism." That means decreasing belief in paternalism, increasing belief in individual discretion.
The Bradleyesque tax bill, which decreases government supervision of economic choices and increases individuals' discretionary income, fits the political analysis above.
Bradley's success suggests that the Democratic Party is regaining its intellectual equilibrium. Ten years ago, important Democratic circles gave respectful hearing to nonsense like the Club of Rome report, with its suggestion that "zero growth" would be beneficial. Ten years ago, the Democratic presidential nominee promised to slash U.S. defenses. Today Bradley sums up the necessary Democratic message in two words: "growth" and "strength."
Bradley says there is "a group of Democrats who are waiting for the next recession. If it comes, they've got the answer." The answer would be the usual pump-priming spending, jobs programs, etc. What Democrats must think about, Bradley says, is "governance of a prosperous society with problems." Democrats must learn to "credibly talk about growth to people making investments."
Bradley is not a one-note siren, calling out to entrepreneurs. Sitting in the sumptuous squalor (the description fits) of the new Hart Senate Office Building, on a hard wooden chair that creaks ominously beneath the weight of his substantial frame, Bradley speaks with passion about "the land." He says our "relationship to the land is linked to our self-conception as a nation as well as our prosperity."
Because of this belief, Bradley has taken an active interest in American Indian affairs. And he says interesting but (to anyone who has driven through northern New Jersey -- Elizabeth, Secaucus and all that) preposterous things about how pastoral New Jersey is. You thought it was wall-to-wall refineries and chemical plants? Wrong. Bradley says New Jersey is pastoral. On the evidence of recent events, Bradley should be listened to.