There has been great gnashing of teeth over the past couple years about the billionaire industrialist Koch brothers, much of it being well deserved. They are the dollars behind austerity-driven executives like Wisconsin’s Scott Walker and Ohio’s John Kasich, and Herman Cain would have you believe he is their chosen candidate. The truth is, though, that the Koch brothers aren’t nearly as toxic as you might believe. They have caused real harm to this country, of that there can be little doubt, but not nearly so much as the man we should all really be concerned with.
Meet Grover Norquist, the founder and President of Americans for Tax Reform. Formed in 1986 amid the Reagan walk-back of his radical tax cuts, Americans for Tax Reform does not represent an ideology. Grover Norquist is not a revolutionary, or a movement warrior. Norquist and his Americans for Tax Reform represent one thing: an aversion to a government which can collect taxes. To understand just how dangerous this single-minded focus, it’s important to contrast it with the advocacy of groups supported by the Koch brothers.
Learning a free-market anti-communist ideology from their father Fred, a proud member of the John Birch Society, Charles and David Koch’s political activities have always carried a strong libertarian bent. Their main mode of influence was to provide seed money and continued support to think-tanks like the CATO institute, Citizens for a Sound Economy (later known as FreedomWorks, a key player in the founding of the TEA party), and numerous Orwellian industry groups such as the Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment. All of these groups pushed laissez-faire market fundamentals, and this libertarian streak turned into Libertarian political ambition, with David being the Vice-Presidential candidate of the Libertarian Party in 1980.
The reason all of this is important is because Libertarianism, though strongly skewed toward income inequality and, arguably, injustice, it is a legitimate political system. A government which is diminished through measures of austerity, either balanced or draconian, is a government which is ultimately sustainable. While most libertarians would disagree, this is also possible to accomplish through a just and fair system of progressive taxation. Both systems are wildly different, and require very different world-views to support, but both are serious, sustainable, and real political systems.
This is why Grover Norquist is so dangerous. He doesn’t care about sustainability. He simply wants to see taxes lowered. Though widely-quoted as an opponent of “Big Government,” his opposition to such a system seems focused entirely around the idea of taxation. This view is stated as such in the Americans for Tax Reform Mission statement:
“The government’s power to control one’s life derives from its power to tax. We believe that power should be minimized.”
Americans for Tax Reform
Grover Norquist is not concerned with sustainability or the maintenance of a free society. His concern is not the rate of taxes or the distribution of the tax burden, and here is where he breaks with the Koch-led libertarian movement in the United States, both in target and method. You see, Americans for Tax Reform have primarily targeted the Congress through the use of a pledge. Nearly every Republican in the United States Congress has been coerced into signing a document promising to never raise taxes. Not to never raise taxes on the rich, or to never raise marginal tax rates. The wording and spirit of this pledge is violated through any action which increases the revenue of the government of the United States of America. While this idea is ideologically consistent with the Koch brothers, it is far more dangerous, and that has become apparent in recent days. Our government has been pushed to the edge of shut-down on several occasions based on this pledge in the brief time since the congressional class of 2010 was sworn in. Even now, as the congressional super-committee approaches a dead-lock which would trigger massive cuts to the defense spending, which for years has stood as the one area in which Republicans were unwilling to make cuts, it is nearly impossible for Republicans to shake clear of this pledge. This is incredibly unsustainable, made most obvious by the out-of-control deficit spending of the Reagan and Bush administrations, and even led to the downgrade of American debt, which has been irrefutably linked to Republicans’ unwillingness to raise taxes. Had Norquist had his way and we were forced into default, the consequences could have been far more devastating.
Contrast this to the champions of the Koch brothers. While they have pushed for tax cuts through their bought-and-paid-for executives in Scott Walker and John Kasich, this has been coupled with austerity measures which (while politically toxic for all involved) represents a balanced approach to the shrinking of government. This has become more clear through FreedomWorks, the TEA party, and their chosen Presidential contenders. Both Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain, both TEA party favorites, have focused most of their tax policy not on taxes being too high, but on the evils of the progressive tax structure. Michele Bachmann has been more explicit in her push for the poor and lower-middle classes to pay their fair share (I will reserve taking this concept apart for a future column), Herman Cain’s 9-9-9 plan has been centrally designed to spread the tax burden beyond its traditional progressive structure. Again, not across-the-board cuts, but realistic cuts for the long-term diminishing of the federal government. While I don’t believe this to be just, I can at least recognize it as realistic.
In closing, the two factions cannot be more different. And while the Koch brothers may be evil, hate the poor, and seek the destruction of the United States as we know it, should Grover Norquist and his Americans for Tax Reform continue along their current path, they might cause the destruction of the United States as anyone knows it.