The Washington Post’s Steven Pearlstein again nicely summarizes a key issue in his column today. The prevailing view is that the sum of all narrow special interests eventually leads to society’s overall best interests. As we witness repeatedly the clout of special interests and the truly selfish objectives they pursue, we know that isn’t true. Pearlstein puts Obama’s challenge succinctly. It is one that all of us — who believe that a founding principle of this country is not only personal freedom to maximize our self-interest but that we have an obligation to achieve a common good that is really our own self-interest — must argue.
While his budget incorporates bold proposals to rescue the financial system, stabilize the auto industry, jump-start the economy, reform the health-care system and eventually bring down the federal deficit, he knows he’s unlikely to win any of it if he cannot change the way business is done in Washington.
It’s not simply a matter of toning down the partisan rhetoric, putting aside the reflexive ideology and getting people together at cocktail parties at the White House, though all of those are important. The bigger challenge is to get Americans and their representatives in Washington to take a broader view of their own self-interest — to see that the benefits they’ll get from finally balancing the budget or reforming health care or weaning the economy off its carbon addiction are so great that they will more than offset the sacrifices they might have to make in terms of paying higher taxes or losing a subsidy or accepting some increase in government regulation.
The trick is how to balance personal and societal interests. I maintain that the progressive income tax is a key instrument to achieve that balance, and that there is no justification for piling on debt on pollutants on future generations to achieve some personal goals.