We cannot afford to ignore middle class

“For the first time ever, the vaunted middle class was not the country’s base but a disenfranchised minority, down from 61 percent of the population in the 1970s to just 49 percent as of last year.”

— Eli Saslow, “From Belief to Resentment in Indiana,” May 14, Washington Post

In 1776, privates in the Continental Army expected to be treated as gentlemen, and they resigned if the terms of their contract were not honored.

This concept of liberty differed from the practice of social exclusiveness in New England, hierarchical status in Virginia and the individual autonomy of back-country settlers, argues David Fisher in his book “Washington’s Crossing.”

Following a disastrous New York campaign, however, American officials realized that the War of Independence required a way of reconciling freedom with the realities of government and the need for tax revenue with the pandering by politicians to prejudices.

The improvised solution strongly affirmed the principle of civilian control over the military but granted to generals power limited in scope to direct the war. After the War of Independence, similar ideas spread to many American institutions, including business corporations, colleges, religious congregations, voluntary associations, the free press and public organization of many kinds.

This became the model for American liberty, separation of powers and rule of law, Fisher notes. As was the experience of Washington and his generals, each generation has to relearn the lessons of liberty.

The plurality of expertise in distinct realms is a hallmark of the American system. Government officials are expected to maintain the rule of law and provide domestic and international security. The tendency towards corruption is openly acknowledged and abated only by separation of powers, the right to assemble, a free press and periodic elections. For example, the military is changed with protection from international threats.

However, we fully acknowledge a tendency of the military-industrial complex to overspend and, therefore, insist on congressional oversight and an elected president as commander in chief. Similarly, free enterprise is recognized as the most effective means of getting food to the table, clothes on our backs and, in general, providing us with other goods and services.

Yet firms engage in crony capitalism and lobby government for special advantages. The liberty that each realm enjoys in exercising their responsibilities requires vigilance, a willingness to tolerate risk and a correction of course when particular interests take precedence to principles and justice.

Given liberty to assume risk and bear the consequences of personal decisions, Americans are expected to maintain a willingness to make tradeoffs and cooperate implicitly and explicitly whenever necessary. This order breaks down when certain individuals or groups are perceived as protected and not playing by the rules. Selected protected people are viewed as credentialed, financially secure, taken care of and having greater access to power.

Whenever these advantaged people operate from a base within government, they create public policies under which the unprotected are forced to live. Ordinary people believe that certain individuals on Capitol Hill in Washington, in the European Union and as members of the oligarchy in developing countries are able to insulate themselves personally from the consequences of their decisions.

Such decisions also adversely affect those for whom elected representatives pledged to act in trust. The “protected” individuals, to borrow from a recent Peggy Noonan column, have lost any particular national allegiance. They make decisions, rule on labor and financial markets and issue regulations governing people who have limited resources and negligible access to power.

A democratic republic cannot ignore the economic well-being of those in all walks of life. In the long run, those who believe that their interests are no longer protected withdraw by lowering their tolerance for taxes, reduce their work effort, shun risk, shield income in the underground economy and entertain ineffective nationalistic policies.