Willy Sutton, in case you are wondering, is the 1930s outlaw who achieved immortality when a reporter asked him why he robbed banks and Sutton replied, simply, “Because that’s where the money is.”
It is an amusing reply because it so utterly misses the point, which was to ask for Sutton’s moral justification. In another respect, though, the response is not funny. It reveals the career criminal’s mindset: moral justifications and the rights of others are considered irrelevant — if they are considered at all. The only thing that is relevant, to a thug, is that banks have lots of money — so why not grab some of it?
I was reminded of Sutton recently while defending the Bush tax cuts in a series of talk radio interviews. Talk radio audiences are generally conservative, and everyone seemed to love the idea of smaller government and less money flowing into Washington. But there was still one objection that kept coming up.
When I argued that the rich deserve a tax cut because they already pay the majority of income taxes — the top 10 percent of income-earners pay nearly two-thirds of all income taxes — I always heard the same response. Why shouldn’t the rich pay most of the taxes? After all, “they can afford it.”
The underlying premise came out more explicitly on another show, when I debated a representative from the Century Foundation, a leftist think tank that never saw a tax it didn’t like. The mantra repeated by my opponent, as if it would automatically win approval, was that estate taxes and high income tax rates are good because they “only affect the rich.” And who could object to piling taxes on the rich? After all, that’s where the money is.
I realized, suddenly, that the real issue in the current debate isn’t about taxes or the rich. It’s a wider issue about how we look at government and how we regard — or fail to regard — basic moral issues.
Call it the Willy Sutton Theory of Government. Whenever the left wants to achieve a goal, it doesn’t ask about morality or rights. It asks where the money is. Are the elderly allegedly having trouble paying for prescription drugs? Let’s club drug manufacturers over the head and force them to lower their prices. Workers feel they need more money? Let’s jack up the minimum wage. After all, employers have plenty of money — so let’s grab some of it.
The same approach is too often echoed by the right, even when they argue against such measures. The conservatives agree, in effect, that it’s morally acceptable to wield a club to get what you want. They merely inform the club-wielder that he can get more loot by not using his club so often. Thus, for example, they argue that cutting taxes will spur economic growth and lead to even higher tax revenues in the future.
In other words, they’re trying to tell Willy Sutton that he can get more money in the long run by not robbing the banks. This is probably true — but when was a bank robber ever convinced by that kind of reasoning?
There is a theory behind all of this — a theory that turns otherwise respectable, law-abiding people into the equivalent of a bank robber (or his accomplices). It is the theory of the “public good.” According to this theory, the “public good” is the only moral standard in all political matters. All other considerations, such as individual rights and property rights, are dispensable.
But since there is no entity labeled “the public” — since a society is made up of various individuals, each with his own particular interests — it is impossible to define exactly who counts as “the public.” Are the wealthy part of “the public,” or are they mere “special interests” who can be sacrificed? How about labor unions, or drug manufacturers, or contingency-fee lawyers, or the Microsoft Corporation, or its competitors? Which of these are “the public” — and which should be its victims?
In practice, this is just a high-brow version of Willy-Sutton-ism. All it means is that if someone has money and someone else can argue that “the public” needs it — then anything goes. It is the triumph of political amoralism.
The only way to restrain government and subject it to moral limits is to resurrect the principle that America’s founders considered the only foundation of a proper government — the principle that Willy Sutton’s disciples want to ignore: the principle of individual rights.