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The Founding Fathers Believed in Redistributing Wealth -- Why Do Tea Party Heroes Like Perry and Bachmann Vilify It?

Redistributing the wealth is a defining function of the modern state, just like defending its borders or maintaining a judicial system.

American conservatives have lurched so far to the right they're now trying to re-litigate questions about the role of government that have been settled for hundreds of years.

The redistribution of wealth is a perfect example. Listening to today's Republicans, one would think it is some kind of pernicious and un-American leftist principle – an idea only embraced by foreigners, socialists and assorted freaks.

During the waning days of the 2008 campaign, John McCain jumped on Barack Obama telling “Joe the Plumber” on the campaign trail that we need to “spread the wealth around” a little bit. It became the heart of the case that the decidedly centrist Obama is a “socialist.” A feverish video blaring the headline, "Obama Bombshell Audio Uncovered. He wants to Radically Reinterpret the Constitution to Redistribute Wealth!!" appeared on Youtube soon after. The offering, from a conservative blog called Naked Emperor News, promised: "This video exposes the radical beneath the rhetoric." (As the Washington Post 's “Fact-Checker” noted, “On closer inspection, the 'bombshell audio' turns out to be a rather wonkish, somewhat impenetrable, discussion of the Supreme Court under Earl Warren.”)

Last year, after BP's DeepWater Horizon rig blew up, polluting the Gulf of Mexico, Rep Michele Bachmann, R-Minnesota, slammed the president for pushing the oil giant to establish a fund to pay claims to Gulf residents impacted by the disaster. "The president just called for creating a fund that would be administered by outsiders, which would be more of a redistribution-of-wealth fund," said Bachmann. “If I was the head of BP,” she added, “I would let the signal get out there -- 'We're not going to be chumps, and we're not going to be fleeced.'"

The common response to this kind of blather is to point out that conservatives like Bachmann are absolutely in love with policies that redistribute wealth, as long as they shift it from working people upward to the investor class. Whether we're talking about trade policy, labor rules that make it difficult for workers to organize or shifting the tax burden from corporations to the backs of American families, the results of the right's long class war from above are plain to see.

The top 1 percent takes in more than twice the share of national income today than they did 30 years ago. Paul Buchheit, a professor with City Colleges of Chicago, crunched some numbers using IRS data and found that “if middle- and upper-middle-class families had maintained the same share of American productivity that they held in 1980, they would be making an average of $12,500 more per year.” At the same time, top earners pay far less in taxes than they did when Ronald Reagan was in office.

That's certainly a valid and factually accurate argument, but it misses a larger point: conservatives are demagoguing what political scientists call a “defining function” of the modern nation-state. Redistributing wealth is every bit as integral to what governments are supposed to do as defending a country's borders or maintaining a functional judicial system. Every government, whether it leans right, left or somewhere in between, redistributes wealth, and they do it constantly.

The right portrays wealth redistribution to the denizens of Fox Nation as the government “stealing” the cash of hard-working Americans and then sending checks to the “undeserving” poor. But “transfer payments” are just one form of wealth redistribution, and in this country, they make up a tiny fraction of the whole.

Every time a public road is built, a forest fire is extinguished or publicly funded research unearths a new medical innovation, wealth is also redistributed. As long as we don't make people pay their exact share of the cost of laying that road, extinguishing that fire, or researching that therapy, wealth is being redistributed. In rough terms, our military budget costs every tax-payer in the United States about $4,000 per year. But not everyone pays $4,000 or more in federal taxes – every year, the Pentagon budget represents a significant redistribution of our national wealth. But when conservatives say they hate redistributing wealth, they're not talking about cutting military spending.

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