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By J. D. Alt, author of The Architect Who Couldn’t Sing, available at or iBooks. Originally published at
I keep reading the big challenge Democrats face in the 2018/2020 elections is that they have moved too far left, proposing a platform that includes “free” universal health care, “free” college tuition, “free” pre-school day-care—and a national infrastructure building and repair program paid for, notby the states, but by the federal government (i.e., “free infrastructure”). Progressives seem to genuinely wonder why mainstream Americans would object to these proposals. Why would American voters be put off by proposals they’d obviously gain so much real—and in many cases personal—benefit from?
The answer lies in three objections which flow together to become an undercurrent mantra of the American psyche:
- When the government pays somebody to provide a service, it is the government who gets to decide who that provider is, and the quality of the service provided. Americans, in general, do not like that idea: they call it “socialism.” Americans prefer the idea that the individual citizen pays for his or her own services and, therefore, gets to choose who provides those services—presumably based on the value and convenience the provider offers.
- To pay somebody to provide a service, the government must collect taxes. The more services the government decides to provide, the more taxes it must collect. Alternatively, the government can borrowdollars to pay for the services it provides—but ultimately it will have to collect more taxes, again, to repay what it has borrowed. Americans do not like to pay taxes—and they do not like the idea of their government being “in debt.”
- Many of the services progressives want the government to provide can, in fact, be provided at lower costs—and with better results—if they are structured with the same profit-motive that organizes and incentivizes the Market Economy. The need to constrain the federal government’s taxing and borrowing means, logically, that “costs” for government-provided services must be reduced—and it is a demonstrated fact that costs are reduced by the creative competition of a Market Economy seeking to maximize profits. It is also a demonstrated fact that where the government provides services “for free” (“socialism”) there is no incentive or dynamic for controlling costs, maximizing efficiency, or creating value. The “socialist” model encourages reliance on the government, unmotivated idleness on the part of citizens, one-size-fits-all products and services, and a massive bureaucratic state that is unresponsive to customer needs and obstructive to creative innovation. A profit-motivated structure, in contrast, encourages self-reliance, freedom-of-choice, creative entrepreneurship, and merit-based rewards that keep people busy and constructively motivated.
These are not idle objections. Progressive Democrats ignore or brush them aside at their peril. I would go further and say the only viable hope for the progressive agenda is not just to consider these objections, but to embracethem—to specifically frame progressive goals in terms of both the fears and aspirations the objections express. In other words, the Democrats must begin speaking not only to the needsof mainstream America, but to its underlying psyche as well.
Here are a few ideas for reframing the message:
Paying Americans to CARE for Americans: How our fiat-money system works.
Health-care is never “free.” It “costs” real time and effort on the part of doctors, nurses, technicians and administrators to keep Americans healthy. The “government” is not going to provide these services—American health professionals are going to provide them. Paying these care-givers to give the time and effort to heal and nurture disabled, sick and injured Americans is one of the primary purposesof our modern fiat-money system. This monetary system—which has been willfully misunderstood, but operational now for over half a century—pays Americans first, then collects taxes second.
Paying Americans to TEACH Americans: How our fiat-money system works.
Education is never “free.” It “costs” real time and effort on the part of teachers, administrators, (and students). The “government” is not going to provide these services—American education professionals are going to provide them. Paying Americans to spend the time and make that effort to educate and train our future workers, managers, and creative entrepreneurs is one of the primary purposesof our modern fiat-money system. This monetary system—which has been willfully misunderstood, but operational now for over half a century—pays Americans first, then collects taxes second.
Paying Americans to CARE for CHILDREN: How our fiat-money system works.
Pre-school day-care is never “free.” It “costs” real time and effort on the part of early-childhood care-givers and teachers. The “government” is not going to provide these services—American child-care professionals are going to provide them. Paying Americans to spend the time and make the effort to ensure that working parents have a safe and nurturing place for their children is one of the primary purposesof our modern fiat-money system. This monetary system—which has been willfully misunderstood, but operational now for over half a century—pays Americans first, then collects taxes second.
Paying American business to REBUILD AMERICA: How our fiat-money system works.
We know we mustrepair, rebuild, and modernize America’s infrastructure. There is no choice. The “government” is not going to get this done—American design and construction professionals are going to accomplish it. Paying America’s engineers, architects, fabricators and builders to repair and modernize our bridges, roadways, damns, water and sewer systems, airports and seaports, rail and urban-transit systems—paying Americans to spend the time and apply their skills and creativity to rebuild and re-envision all these systems is one of the primary purposesof our modern fiat-money system. This monetary system—which has been willfully misunderstood, but operational now for over half a century—pays Americans first, then collects taxes second.
When we use our sovereign fiat-money system to pay Americans to provide health-care, education, and child-care services to American families, those families choosewho provides them the service. They choose their doctor. They choose their college or technical school. They choose their child-care center. The providers of these services must compete for the “business” of American families.
When we use our sovereign fiat-money system to pay American engineers, architects, and builders to design and construct our modernized infrastructure, it is regional, state, and local communities who decide what should be built—and what should not be built. We have a traditional democratic process that can make those decisions: The Referendum. An “infrastructure referendum” is not a referendum on whether we should tax ourselves to accomplish a needed or desired collective goal—it is a referendum on whether a particular goal is something we want to pay ourselves—as a democratic society—to accomplish.
Because our modern fiat-money system pays us to accomplish collective goals first, then collects taxes afterwards, we can re-evaluate how much taxing the federal government needs to do to drain excess dollars from the economy (to manage inflation). This might well result in reducingthe taxes Americans have to pay.
What is at play here is not just framing the progressive agenda in terms of the reality of modern fiat-money—but framing modern fiat-money in terms of the values and traditions embedded in the American psyche. This is the REAL challenge the progressive platform faces.