While reading the British press the other day I was struck by an interesting example of the modern tendency for the Overton Window — the range of policy options that can be discussed in polite society — constantly to creep to the left while narrowing.
The substance of the matter isn’t much to write home about. It was a fairly vapid and poorly argued editorial piece in the hard-left Guardian, written by an apparently unashamed, unmarried drunken floozy, proposing a 100% inheritance tax for the express purpose of funding more welfare state programs.
I don’t care to get too deep into the “proposal,” such as it is, or the many reasons why it is stupid. Suffice it to say that it contains absolutely no econometric analysis, relies on killer lines of reasoning such as “social progress has frequently depended on our ability to transcend individualistic urges and work together for the common good” (or, as I put it, the War Against Human Nature Must Continue), and gives precisely zero thought to the most obvious knock-on effects that must be dealt with when setting inheritance tax policy — such as, what to do about lifetime gifts? Virtually every civilized tax code recognizes that lifetime gifts are a close substitute for testamentary bequests, especially among those wealthy enough to be charged traditional death taxes, and regulates the two in tandem. But the thought hadn’t even occurred to our fearless, if intellectually stunted, Guardian columnist!
No, what struck me about the piece was simply the fact that it was published at all in a “mainstream” outlet. Now, my surprise my come as a surprise to you. After all, looking back over the past century, this proposal is not completely outside the realm of what large groups of serious people once considered mainstream policy. In the 1950s, for example, the U.S. had confiscatory 90% marginal rate on high incomes, and the UK had a borderline-insane 97.5% rate on high incomes. These seem like only slight improvements on a 100% tax rate on inheritances; moreover, half the world was Communist back then, which must be akin to a 100% tax rate on inheritances, only harsher. In sum, a proposed 100% tax rate on inheritances wouldn’t seem that out of place in the world of the 1950s — either the free world or behind the Iron Curtain.
But you know what else was considered mainstream policy by large groups of serious people back in the 1950s? Racial segregation in housing and schooling. Jim Crow laws. Classifying homosexuality as a mental disease and criminal offense. Presuming that the average woman’s highest calling was mother and homemaker. But all these norms are long overturned; they are politically incorrect, toxic, radioactive — even Racist, which is the worst thing of all. You won’t see the Daily Mail, or even Fox News, run an editorial endorsing any of those positions!
The funny thing is this: Communism failed. Absurdly high tax rates are long gone. Yet it is still acceptable to propose these things in polite society, even though they are demonstrably terrible, harmful things. Meanwhile, all the functional social policies of the 1950s are verboten. After all, it is desegregation which has failed after 50+ years of forced busing; it is an out-of-control gay culture that lead to the permanent and deadly AIDS epidemic; it is militant feminism which has driven western fertility to catastrophic sub-replacement-rate lows while pushing women and girls to all-time high levels of personal unhappiness and mental illness. But it is unacceptable in polite society to discuss the possibility of making a rightward return towards functional 1950s norms in these areas, even while we can freely discuss taking a leftward return towards dysfunctional 1950s norms regarding taxation and Communist economic policies.
The Overton Window has shrunk and moved to the left. We should note that well. For all the lofty talk of the “free marketplace of ideas” and other such silly things, the Hard Left has done a good job of shrinking competition and narrowing choice. Any response, any attempt to return our national discourse to sanity, has to do both of these things in reverse: open the window further to the right, while shutting it on the left. This has been a strategic weakness of many of the more respectable types who have attempted to move our discourse and policies back into the realm of the sustainable — a drive to open our discourse to the right without a concomitant drive to box out harmful lefty ideas as being beyond the social pale.
I think this stems from the generous and good-hearted nature of many conservatives, who instinctively turns towards a “live and let live” ethos. But with the very continuation of our peoples and our way of life is at stake, the moment is long past for good-hearted peacetime attitudes. And make no mistake — a society in which every generation is 25% smaller than its parents’ generation is one which will dwindle into insignificance within a century. There is an existential war of attrition taking place, and we, as men of the West, are its prime targets. It is a testament to our inherent strength — and the inherent vice of our foes — that so many of us can carry on our daily lives effectively and prosperously without much noticing it. But it notices us, and it has taken aim. If we care to reverse it, the least we can do is openly acknowledge it!