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A Divisive Campaign Would Be Welcome

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That was cute when Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry started his acceptance speech by snapping a salute and saying he was “reporting for duty.” Cute, but not quite truthful. If he becomes president, we will be expected to carry out his commands. It’s only in democratic folklore that government is the servant and the people the master.

In the real world, alas, it’s the other way around. True, occasionally the Supreme Court tells a president he’s gone too far. But that doesn’t happen nearly enough. In postconstitutional America the president can pretty much do what he wants. Kerry knows that. He’d be much less interested in the presidency were that not the case.

The “reporting for duty” statement was supposed to remind us of his deadly “service” in Vietnam. The convention scene was surreal. There was Kerry, a Vietnam war opponent before and after his short stint in it, getting a raucous ovation from the Democratic delegates, most of whom would say they are anti-war, Vietnam as well as Iraq. Why were they applauding a man who confessed to committing atrocities 30 years ago?

I can think of only one answer. They hope Kerry’s war record will blunt Republican criticism of perceived Democratic weakness on security issues and propel him into the White House. Now that’s cynicism.

Cynicism was on grand display throughout the convention week. “Anti-war” delegates were so eager to win that they accepted a nominee who voted to give a Republican president a blank check to make war on Iraq whenever he felt moved to do so. Kerry now says he had no idea President Bush would go to war before exhausting all diplomatic avenues. Wasn’t he watching the administration? It was obvious that Bush wanted war and was only going through diplomatic motions to keep from alienating the entire world.

Kerry devoted part of his speech to denouncing divisive campaign tactics (while running-mate John Edwards complained of “two Americas”). As Kerry put it, “This is our time to reject the kind of politics calculated to divide race from race, region from region, group from group.” I can agree, until he says “group from group.” What American politics needs is a heightened division between two particular groups: those once called taxpayers and the tax-eaters — the people who produce wealth and the people who either take it or live off it. The tax-eaters are not mostly poor people. They are middle- and upper-class types who include bureaucrats, consultants, grant-collecting academics, farmers, corporate interests, and other affluent recipients of government largess.

There is not nearly enough polarization of the taxpayer and tax-eater classes. In his speech Kerry said, “I will roll back the tax cuts for the wealthiest individuals who make over $200,000 a year, so we can invest in health care, education, and job creation.” The line got wild applause because the Boston FleetCenter was filled to the gills with government-employee union members, the largest tax-eating group. It is not shy about its designs on the property of others. When will the productive people who are to be looted be equally vocal in defense of their rights?

The Republicans are too busy trying to win at any cost to realize that the campaign could use some real class conflict, one that pits those who want to keep their property against those who want to seize it. That would be a campaign worth watching.

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.