Incrementalism and Gun Control

By: Jeff Deist

The spectacle of anti-gun marches this past weekend, at times both sinister and maudlin, provides yet another example that “democracy” does not yield some kind of livable compromise on any given issue. Instead it creates division and distrust, fed by a media environment that encourages using children as props, promotes emotion over reason, and confuses motion with action.  

What democracy does yield beyond a doubt is the incremental but relentless expansion of state power in society, as seen throughout the 20th century in America. Incrementalism, an inescapable feature of statism, is scarcely acknowledged by gun control advocates and gun rights advocates alike. But it forms the backdrop for everything political in our unfortunately hyper-politicized society.

Surely we understand the entire 20th century in America as a triumph of sweeping progressive incrementalism. Central banking, taxes on income, retirement insurance schemes, public schools, welfare programs, housing programs, food stamps—all of these were once radically progressive ideas that over time became fully integrated into the American landscape, accepted by even the most reactionary conservatives.

Take the constitutionally-suspect income tax, made possible by ratification of the 16th Amendment in 1913. It was first sold to the public as a scheme to soak the rich, and indeed for the first few decades only about 5% of the population was even required to file an income tax return. The tax rate on incomes up to $20,000 (several hundred thousand of today’s dollars) was only 1%, and was only 7% on vast incomes above $500,000 (many millions today).

Fast forward to today, and even the lowliest minimum wage earner files a basic 1040 form. The highest marginal income tax rates approach 40%, and have been far higher in previous decades. More importantly, the Internal Revenue rules contain thousands of pages of minute regulations, creating a compliance and privacy nightmare for decidedly non-rich average Americans.

So a century after the radical new idea of taxing income became accepted, individual income taxes now account for a majority of federal revenue. April 15th is now a permanent part of the American landscape, something unimaginable in 1913. That’s how incrementalism works.

A similar story can be told about the Social Security system. Old age pensions were needed to keep elderly widows from being thrown into the street, or so Americans were told in 1935. The Great Depression had put millions out of work, average life expectancy was less than 65, and there were dozens of workers paying into the system for every beneficiary. And until 1950, the Social Security withholding tax rate was only 1%.

Who could object to such a humane and viable system? A lousy 1% of one’s paycheck to prevent the specter of elderly people living in the streets?

Today, Social Security and its Medicare cousin—another incremental advance— consume 15% of employee paychecks, average life expectancy in America is 78, fewer than three workers fund each recipient, and the unfunded future shortfall in entitlements may reach $200 trillion.

This is incrementalism writ large.

As a bonus, your Social Security number is now a unique identifier that helps the IRS and other government agencies, insurance companies, landlords, bank and credit providers, rating agencies, a host of websites and social media platforms, and happy identity thieves track your every move. So much for FDR’s promise that only you and the Social Security Administration would ever know your private number.

Even social and cultural issues, which ought to evolve completely outside of politics, become matters of incremental statism. Thus the Stonewall era, marked by justified concerns over police beatings of gay men and violent enforcement of unjust sodomy laws, morphed into something quite different. Today the LGBT movement pushes America inexorably toward legal and legislative battles concerning a host of issues, from hiring laws to required gender pronouns to religious exemptions to hate speech to what marriage ceremonies clergy must perform. In other words, issues currently being fought over in Europe, the UK, and Canada soon will be fought over in the US. And they won’t be fought on cultural fronts, by well-intentioned people seeking compromise and understanding, but in the statist arenas of legislatures and courts.

Democracy is nothing more than the process of politically vanquishing minority viewpoints. We can sugarcoat it, but our American version of winner-take-all, top-down, federalize-everything governance is not somehow ennobled by voting or debate. It manifests itself in state power, not some mythical version of halfway compromises whereby neither side (or sides) gets everything it wants. And where that power cannot be wielded abruptly, for practical, political, or ideological reasons, it is wielded incrementally.

Thus every call for gun registries, background checks, mental health screening, prohibitions on certain weapons, magazines, or ammunition, etc. must be viewed through this incremental lens. The question is not whether such proposals represent today’s common sense, or whether anyone “needs” an AR-15. The question is what laws we enact today might lead to tomorrow.

Because our well-intentioned great-grandparents didn’t mean to saddle anyone with trillions of dollars in unfunded liabilities when they let Congress pass the Social Security Act of 1935, but that’s exactly what they did.    

So when gun control advocates insist they simply want commonsense measures imposed, or that “nobody wants to take your guns,” the answer for many Americans is clear: we don’t believe you.

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