Franklin’s Wisdom and Decision Time

By Martin Harris

We don’t know the exact year, but sometime during Benjamin Franklin’s relatively long life (1706-1790) and perhaps at the founding of the First Vermont Republic in 1777, he opined (as did Greek philosopher Plato and Scottish political scientist Alexander Tytler , one long and one just before him) that “when the people find that they can vote themselves money, that will herald the end of the republic.” That “when” has just occurred with the re-election of Prez #44, whose campaign succeeded by appealing to the new majority of voters’ desire for more “free stuff” from government, expressed in the form of money and services, out-numbering the new minority of more traditional voters who sought more freedom, economic and intellectual, from government: the right to be left alone, in Progressive Justice Louis Brandeis’s inimitable phrase. Now this minority (defined not ethnically but philosophically) fears its future as the re-distributionist Left’s permanent source for OPM (a little Margaret Thatcher “Other Peoples’ Money” lingo, here) and has begun to respond in some remarkable new ways. A point worth noting: even in the two “blue-est” States, Vermont and Rhode Island, not one “red” majority county on the national election results map, there’s a “free-dom” minority now (permanently?) electorally submerged by the “free-stuff” majority. It was only 31% of the vote in VT, 35% in RI, the US Election Atlas says. That compares to 48% nationwide. And even that 48% despairs of solving the new “tyranny of the majority” (a little John Adams lingo, here) problem they (we) now face. That despair explains three trends, one fairly old, two fairly new.

The fairly old one has quite successfully created the new D Vermont out of the old R enclave which existed when, during the Great Depression’s 1936 election, only Maine’s and Vermont’s voters declined D offers of “free stuff”. It’s usually argued that Vermont’s Gentry-Left metamorphosis began with the election of G-L pol Philip Hoff as Governor in 1962, probably earlier when you consider that it usually requires a G-L voter majority to be in place before a G-L candidate can win office. Since then, when the native-born population was near 90%, it’s shrunk to about half, as in-migration of sub- and exurbanites from middle- and upper-middle-class metropolitan enclaves has grown the population from less than 400,000 to more than 600,000, natural increase being a fairly negligible factor pretty much balanced by working-Vermonter out-migration as traditional dairy farming began to do its books with red ink starting in the mid-50’s. Whether the new 200,000 (“Volvoid”, as Weybridge writer Bo Knepp defines them) came to dominate Vermont’s governance systematically via Jamestown 70, a Yale-based Clinton-origin strategic experiment in selecting a small State for skillful political take-over and experimentation, or by the individual decisions of a myriad of non-urban-alternatives-seeking young suburbanites probably doesn’t matter any more. Since those early years, that basic pattern has gone nation-wide as, through personal re-location decisions, some States (like VT) have become ever more “blue” in political outlook, while others (like TN) have become ever-more red. “Tyranny of the majority” works both ways in modern political tactics, which explains why States, once they’re first identified as liberal or conservative, then get more so as the minority shrinks through out-migration and the majority grows. Vermont’s remaining conservatives face just that decision: stay, vote, lose, obey the new reg’s and pay the new taxes, or leave, physically or virtually. Trend 1: Vermont presently has one of the largest nationwide percentages of young-adult family departures, which explains both the relatively low unemployment rate and declining school enrollments, to illustrate physical departure. Trend 2: So far, there’s only the Killington secession-attempt of 2004-5 (Killington voters, in a “tax-plus” Town sending nearly $10 million more annually to the State than it received in services or State Aid, saw themselves as “makers”, not “takers”) and the Second Vermont Republic proposal of 2003, apparently intended to enable the new entity to outlaw all big-box and similar modern retail. And there’s a Vermont secession petition in circulation.

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The received political wisdom –that “free-stuff-from government” voters now permanently out-number and out-vote taxpaying “freedom from government” voters– is reflected in ex-speech-writer Peggy Noonan’s argument that a Conservative candidate should promise “care” to voters, just as Liberal candidates do. But “care”, in pol-speak, is recognized only in “free-stuff” terms; the “takers” want ever-more unearned purchasing power, not intangible empathy. Think the expansion of free food and unemployment benefits, together with the reduction of work-seeking for welfare and even citizenship requirements for health and educational freebies during the recent recession, all of which bought enough voters for successful re-election. With due respect to PN’s usual analytical quality, it’s illogical to argue that the traditional Center-Right, now a voting minority, lost because the R candidate didn’t promise them his “care” in the form of “free stuff” bought with OPM, actually their own taxes, when only the Left, Center or otherwise, seeks expressions of “care” in the form of ever more “free stuff”, or, the Gentry-Left sector (journalist Michael Barone calls them “wealthy liberals”) which sells its vote for profitable government connections, exclusionary permits and licenses, and privileges ranging from academic studies to solar panels to fiscal bail-outs to political activism at the larger end of the “stuff” scale, to subsidies for small-scale power generation/sell-back, farmers’ markets, and village-scale public transit (all established Vermont phenomena) at the smaller end.

Follow the money: every voter whose income or wealth is in any way governmentally-influenced (think teachers’ collective bargaining privileges) is presumptively likely to vote the (D) pocket-book, even though, when asked, the same voter would likely proclaim righteous concern over “too much government” or “too much debt and deficit”, even the “fiscal cliff” question, the coming income tax-rate increases should Washington fail at deficit-reduction efforts. That’s because –the Vermont anomaly again– most G-L voters in the Green Mountain State aren’t under-class no-income/no-tax types, for whom a tax-rise (on others) would be both fun to watch and profitable for the welfare budget on which they have voted to depend; they are, mostly, the 99-percenter tax-paying types, who actually provide the OPM on which governmental re-distribution depends