In carving out his space in the moderate “lane”, Pete Buttigieg came out against the free college plans of Warren and Sanders. Indeed here seems to be campaigning against the universality of public goods:
“There are some voices out there [Warren, Sanders, and others] who say, ‘That doesn’t go far enough, until you include the kids of millionaires — but, I only want to make promises that we can keep. Look, what I’m proposing is plenty bold. We can gather the majority to drive those big ideas without turning off half the country before we even get into office. And that I think is the best governing strategy as well as what I think it’s going to take to win. And Lord knows we gotta win.”
Leftists like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have fired back, saying that carving rich folks out creates “cracks in the system”:
“This is a GOP talking point used to dismantle public systems, & it’s sad to see a Dem candidate adopt it,” she wrote. “Just like rich kids can attend public school, they should be able to attend tuition-free public college.”
“Universal public systems are designed to benefit EVERYBODY!” she continued. “Everyone contributes & everyone enjoys. We don’t ban the rich from public schools, firefighters, or libraries bc they are public goods.”
Ocasio-Cortez argued an advantage of universal systems was that “everyone’s invested,” and she said “carving people out & adding asterisks” would cause “cracks in the system.”
Buttigieg imagines that his more limited strategy will strengthen the political appeal. But this presupposes the appeal of political moderation — a pose or aesthetic, in any event — for an actual, tangible benefit. On the contrary: Offering the benefit universally is actually the better political tactic. And there’s lived experience behind it.
It is somewhat ironic to see leftists defend sharing societal benefits with the very rich. But in this case I’m pretty sure the leftists have their strategy right. Public goods — libraries, schools, parks, subways, military- fire- and police protection — these all bind society together. They are therefore popular across class lines. It means that some resources upon which the poor and working class depend, also have constituencies among the professional classes, which typically enjoy more political power. We have this experience in the US with Medicare and Social Security, which still enjoy iron-clad popularity.
As the late historian Tony Judt discusses in his book Postwar, the rise of the welfare state in postwar Europe made life easier for even those of some means:
… Secondly, the welfare states of Europe were not politically divisive. They were socially redistributive in general intent (some more than others), but not at all revolutionary — they did not “soak the rich.” On the contrary, although the greatest immediate advantage was felt by the poor, the real long-term beneficiaries were the professional and commercial middle class. In many cases they had not been eligible for work-related health, unemployment and retirement benefits and had been obliged, before the war, to purchase such services and benefits from the private sector. Now they had full access to them, either free or at low cost.Taken with the provision of free or subsidized secondary and higher education for their children, this left the salaried professional white collar classes with more disposable income. Far from dividing the social classes against each other, the European welfare state bound them closer together than ever before, with a common interest in its preservation and defense.
We currently suffer under the tyranny of an ideal of extreme individualism — every man a John Galt, every home a castle which hoards a sovereign wealth fund of alphabet soup: 401k, IRAs, 529, etc. Perhaps this is because in America, we don’t have the catastrophe of the aftermath of World War II fresh in our memories. We imagine the stock market will go up forever; that we will win all the wars (in spite of evidence); that nothing — war, plagues, tyranny, natural disasters — will shake our nation’s foundations or threaten our safety. If we can’t imagine disaster here, in our own time, to us and our own people — we can’t imagine needing help. The Great Recession with its generational gaping inequality has finally challenged this orthodoxy; can a communitarian, all-in-this-together ethic replace it? If we separate those who have amassed wealth from the benefits of taxation, they will resist taxation all the more.
Wouldn’t free- or nearly-free college be an enormous relief, even to reasonably wealthy people? Wouldn’t 100% universal, paid-up, cradle-to-grave health care be a relief? There’s a distinct sense of defensiveness on Buttigieg’s part — which doubtless rank-and-file Democrats share. But we’ve got to play offense and sell the benefits of social programs, to as wide an audience as possible. Why not keep it simple? Everyone’s in.
Really, what we require from the wealthy is solidarity. The wealthy don’t owe us full-freight tuition. Nor do they owe us philanthropy for their pet causes. No, the rich owe society their taxes, to the benefit of all.