Many years ago, Columbia economist Jeff Sachs did me a personal favor. We had both just graduated from Harvard, and I was moving from a dorm room in one of the residential houses down by the Charles River to a very sparse apartment in Somerville. The floors in the apartment were covered by some form of linoleum and badly in need of a rug. Another friend offered to give me a rug if I would take it out of his apartment. It was about 8 feet by 10 feet long, and one person alone couldn’t handle the job. The catch was, I had to get it that night.
I couldn’t find anyone to help me, and as I wandered through Harvard Yard that evening, I bumped into Jeff, who even at that young age had quite a reputation as an economics genius. I knew Jeff, but not well, and after chatting a moment, he told me I looked like I was in a hurry. I explained the situation, and he offered to help. I was quite surprised by his generous offer.
So we headed up to one apartment, picked up the rug, and the two of us walked about a mile with it, carrying it over our shoulders as if we were a couple of stevedores–which we obviously weren’t–to my new apartment.
I doubt that Professor Sachs even remembers the incident, but I mention it here to demonstrate that he’s a genuinely nice, altruistic person.
Which brings us to a few brief observations about his new book, The Price of Civilization. The title comes from the quote from Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., who famously said “taxes are the price we pay for civilization.” Professor Sachs wholeheartedly agrees, and argues that our problem is that we just aren’t paying enough in taxes these days. The wealthy, in particular, aren’t paying “their fair share” of taxes. It’s a familiar, predictable, and uninspiring argument.
I note that Professor Sachs pays homage to Keynesian economic objectives such as “efficiency” and “fairness,” but gives short shrift to the Constitution. Indeed, he makes only one mention of it in his entire book. He criticizes the Founders for being so short sighted as to hold elections for the House of Representatives every two years. In 1789, biennial elections for legislative bodies was considered a worthy reform. In 2011, it’s apparently hopelessly outdated. (Professor Sachs is welcome to launch an amendment campaign to change this, if he wishes.)
Here’s a key point Professor Sachs missed in his book. Holmes issued his famous quote back in 1904, during the 142 year period between 1789 and 1931 when peace time federal spending as a percentage of GDP never exceeded 4 percent. I note today that under policies Professor Sachs supports, federal spending as a percentage of GDP–at 24 percent– is now six times greater than it was during Justice Holmes’ prime.
When Justice Holmes delivered that famous quote, I’m pretty sure he didn’t have the current level of taxation in mind as the “price” of civilization. At 24 percent of GDP, we’re dramatically overpaying for civilization.
Professor Sachs makes the same mistake many well intentioned altruists make when it comes to public policy. They substitute their own ideas of “equity” and “fairness” for Constitutionally valid solutions. The implication is that their altruism–because it’s good and noble–trumps our notions of Constitutionality.
As an economist, Professor Sachs understands the difference between the concepts of “price” and “cost.” 4 percent of the GDP may be the “price” of civilization, but 24 percent of the GDP sounds more like the “cost” of tyranny.
Michael Patrick Leahy is the editor of the Voices of the Tea Party e-book series and co-founder of Top Conservatives on Twitter and the Nationwide Tea Party Coalition. His new e-book, I, Light Bulb: A Death Row Testimonial, was published in July. His new book, Covenant of Liberty: The Ideological Origins of the Tea Party Movement, will be published by Broadside Books in spring, 2012. He can be reached on Twitter at @michaelpleahy .