Back in the old days, rulers ruled. They ruled over everything, from church, to military, to trade.
But then came the modern mechanical era. God no longer kept the planets in their orbits, and an "invisible hand" seemed to guide merchants and consumers without the constant intervention of a wise ruler.
What is a ruler to do? He worries about "inequality." Not because he's caring and compassionate, or even because he's a brilliant technocrat, but because if you want to meddle with the workings of the "invisible hand" you have to start out by saying that the "invisible hand" isn't doing the job. It's making some people too rich and leaving some people behind as too poor.
Thus Marx. Thus the British Fabians. Thus the American Progressives. Thus the New Deal. And thus our modern "progressives," university liberals, and President Obama.
It's not that the president is a socialist, but that socialism is just one phase in the serial attempts of the modern educated elite to justify its rule over the "commanding heights" of the economy, the culture, and politics.
In President Obama's recent State of the Union speech, we see the box that he and his educated elite friends are in. They want to rule. They want new programs. They want new regulations. They want to be patrons, and they want us to be adoring and grateful clients.
But the science is in. The "invisible hand" really works. And it really works better if the government isn't endlessly manipulating the economy to get out of its latest jam with money printing, debt defaults, and endless subsidies.
And now the educated elite has run out of money. But the band plays on.
In his speech the president has to walk a fine line. He must invoke the great narrative of American exceptionalism, quoting Abraham Lincoln. But he must twist it to fit his ruling-class agenda. Thus he invokes "fairness" to justify increased taxes on the rich. Here's the data from the IRS on this. The rich pay a huge chunk of federal taxes, the rest of the top 50 percent pay almost all the rest and the bottom 50 percent pay almost nothing. What the bottom 50 percent do pay goes towards payroll taxes, i.e., Social Security and Medicare.
I've been arguing with a left-wing friend recently about "inequality." He has a chart that shows that median income went up with average income in the 1950s and 1960s. But since 1980 the median income has lagged the average income, so the rich have been getting more of it.
Folks like Walter Russell Mead and Megan McArdle tell why this happened. The post-World War II economy was corporatist. The benefits were parceled out by an inside deal between the Big Units: big government, big unions, and big corporations. But this crony capitalism ran out of money in the 1970s, as the rest of the world recovered from World War II and began to compete. But then breathtaking new developments in technology and commerce poured gigantic fortunes into the laps of the entrepreneurs that took the opportunities and made them into consumer products, men like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. Then there was Sam Walton who built Wal-Mart up from nothing to become the world's biggest retailer. There's nothing fancy about Wal-Mart, just hard work to buy low and sell low, and provide an emergency operations center so Wal-Mart can flood assistance into disaster areas.
But what about the salvific progressive political leader? Where does he fit in all this? He really doesn't. We really don't need him. That is why the educated elite keeps coming up with new end-the-world scenarios. That's what political leaders and religious leaders have always done to persuade us to follow them.
And that's the point. Obama ran for office as a salvific leader under whose transformative leadership the "rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal." But really, global warming is a crock, and we've been working successfully on the environment for half a century, since about the time that Barack Obama was born in Hawaii.
The great Montesquieu imagined the modern government with its separated powers: legislative, executive and judicial. This was not an argument against tyrants, but an argument about the inevitable tyranny of a unified government.
Now we need to expand Montesquieu's ideas into a Greater Separation of Powers, between the political, the economic and moral-cultural sectors. Obviously the scope and power of salvific political leaders will be much reduced.
President Obama and his ruling class will kick and scream all the way to their eventual irrelevance. Oh well. I can handle that if you can.