Where Have All The Liberals Gone?

Commentary by John C Goodman

The late Karl Hess, who evolved from speech writer for Barry Goldwater to communitarian anarchist, once said, "The one thing in my life I have never been is a liberal."

Hess, it seems, is not alone. Outside New York City and Hollywood, it's hard to find a liberal these days. In fact, it's hard to find anyone who will admit to ever having been a liberal.

Liberals are becoming an endangered species and already I miss them. Why? Because there are certain things only liberals could do. Certain things only liberals could say. The carping and complaining we hear from the left these days is simply no substitute for the moral outrage liberals use to be able to muster on issues like... well... like the recent Powerball scandal. And the right word is "scandal." How else could you characterize government taking more than a quarter of a billion dollars - mainly from the bottom half of the income ladder - and delivering the whole sum to thirteen lucky people who now will reside comfortably at the top?

Liberals used to complain that capitalism creates inequalities of income and wealth. This time government did it. Liberals used to argue that rich people do not deserve their fortunes, since luck often plays a role. In this case, government guaranteed that luck was the source of wealth.

If one's central concern is the unequal distribution of income and wealth, it's hard to imagine a more outrageous act of government in peacetime. So where was the liberal outrage when the first hundred million dollar lottery was conducted in May? Silence from the New York Times. No comment from the New Republic. Other issues captured the attention of the Nation.

Of course, nonliberals could weigh in as well. But conservatives have never been particularly troubled by inequality. And libertarians who believe in the right to gamble will harbor the suspicion that free market lotteries would have produced the same sort of result anyway. No, this is a situation that calls for unique skills. When it comes to deploring the truly deplorable no one is a match for old-fashioned liberals. But where are they?

Then there's the proposed hike in tobacco taxes, supposedly held at bay by the tobacco companies. Thank God for special interests. No tax socks it to the lower half like the cigarette tax. Multiply $1.10 per pack times 365 days in a year, and you arrive at a proposed tax burden of more than $1,000 a year for a three-pack-a-day family. A $1.50 tax is even more insidious. Amazingly, Congress, with President Clinton cheering on the sidelines, tried to seize at least 10 percent of the income of more than a few poverty level families and 5 percent of the income of many of the near poor.

Make no mistake about it; what promised to be the largest tax increase in history would also have been the most regressive. In case no one has noticed, very few rich people smoke any more. The Bureau of Labor Statistics tells us that families who earn $30,000 a year or less account almost 50 percent of tobacco purchases. Families who earn no more than $50,000 buy 70 percent of all the tobacco sold. So where are all those Democrats who howled that last year's capital gains tax cut was a giveaway to the rich? They've been too busy counting all the ways they plan to spend the new taxes they want to levy on the poor.

And let's not forget the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO). If the concept of civil liberties means anything, it means you're presumed innocent until proven guilty. In a free society, government can't confiscate your property until it proves you did something wrong. And it certainly can't take your assets and refuse to allow you to spend your own money on your own criminal defense. At least that's the way it's supposed to work. But that's not the way it works for RICO. RICO allows the seizure of assets before any conviction - and the accused person has to fight to get them back.

The erosion of basic civil liberties began with the prosecution of Mafia bosses; then was extended to Wall Street financiers; and now is being used against abortion protesters. But wait a minute. Isn't the American Civil Liberties Union supposed to defend unsympathetic figures to protect basic liberties for the rest of us? That's the way it used to be. These days, the ACLU is too busy carrying water for special interests -- promoting affirmative action and opposing school choice.

And what about nuclear proliferation? Granted, liberals have a mixed history on this issue. One of their guys dropped the big one. But while conservative war mongers were controlling U.S. foreign policy over the past few decades, who else could you turn to if you didn't love the bomb? No more. These days conservatives are more likely to be heard complaining about the Clinton-China-India-nuclear-testing connection. People we used to call liberal are more likely to alternate between repeating Bill Clinton's you-can't-prove-I-did-anything-wrong line and the president's Reagan-and-Bush-did-it-too defense.

And let's not forget the White House. Conservatives claim there's a double standard. If a Republican president got his opponents' FBI files, used the IRS to harass his critics and hired private investigators to smear anyone who challenged him, the intelligentsia would be in an uproar. At least that's what conservatives think. I'm afraid they are wrong.