I have often been struck by the number of pithy observations — revelatory, pointed or simply true — that were not said by the person to whom they are attributed. Vladimir Lenin apparently never said (in Russian or in English) that “the way to crush the bourgeoisie is to grind them between the millstones of taxation and inflation.”
Mark Twain, to whom many amusing remarks have been falsely attributed, apparently did not contend that reports of his death had been greatly exaggerated. Edmund Burke neither said nor wrote that evil would triumph if good men did nothing.
Churchill, like Twain a magnet for orphaned mots seeking parents, did not say that “the idea that a nation can tax itself into prosperity is one of the crudest delusions which has ever befuddled the human mind.”
Tocqueville, yet another favored repository of crisp admonitory apothegms, did not point out that “the American Republic will endure until the day Congress discovers that it can bribe the public with the public’s money.”
One thing to note about these pairings of putative author and scintillating observation is how plausible the linkage always is. Lenin certainly could have made that remark about grinding the bourgeoisie: he was keen on deploying any available millstones to destroy the class he abominated. Unlike Chief Justice John Marshall, who pointed out during the economic crisis of 1819 the great danger that “the power to tax involves the power to destroy,” Lenin thought of its destructiveness as an advantage.
As for inflation, has anyone improved upon Ronald Reagan’s warning that “inflation is as violent as a mugger, as frightening as an armed robber, and as deadly as a hitman”?
Again, I suspect Lenin might have agreed. But, unlike Reagan, he would have regarded those attributes as features, not bugs. And it is worth noting that it was not only the bourgeoisie Lenin aimed to destroy. He aimed to transform the entire populace into honorary or potential members of the bourgeoisie in order to impoverish them and bring them under state control. A poor populace is a dependent populace, and a dependent populace is easier to control than a free and independent citizenry.
This was an insight that Lenin thoroughly grasped. It stands behind his chilling observation that “communism means keeping track of everything.” (Another attribution, true, but if he didn’t say exactly that, he assuredly meant it.) Imagine if Lenin had had the surveillance tools provided by Google, Facebook and other social media. His agenda of dependency would have proceeded even further than it did.
As it happens, we do not need to imagine such a contingency. We have our very own made-in-America variety present and accounted for. Over the course of a few months, we have gone from a situation where all the beautiful people running our lives were telling us that inflation was merely “transitory,” that it was a “high-class problem” because it meant that more people were buying things (yes, Jen Psaki actually said that), to screaming headlines that inflation is out of control, that it is the worst in forty years, that it is tanking the economy.
The real question is whether Biden — or whoever is pulling his strings — is deliberately taking a page from Lenin’s playbook or (is this more or less frightening?) whether it is simply the supreme incompetence of his entire administration.
I do not know the answer. But here’s a thought experiment. Ask yourself what Biden and his minders would have done differently had they actually intended to impoverish the American citizenry. Just about the first thing Biden did upon taking office was mount an all-out attack on the American energy industry. His cancellation of the Keystone pipeline got a lot of ink. But that was just the tip of the oil rig. He has worked tooth and claw to destroy the coal industry. He has canceled oil- and gas-lease sales in Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico. Is it any wonder that the United States went from being a net energy exporter at the end of the Trump administration to showing up, empty red can in hand, begging for the stuff from Venezuela and Iran?
It’s something to think about when you fill up your gas tank and notice that the gauges on the pumps have just been altered to allow for an extra digit: not $9.99 per gallon, Comrade, but $10.00 or more. When there is less of something that is in demand, like energy, its price rises. That’s a pretty simple equation. But, like some bits of the Bill of Rights according to William O. Douglas, it has penumbras and emanations that ripple outward to increase the cost of, well, everything.
The Biden administration’s immediate response was to print more money, lots of it, thus fueling inflation and thereby making the money less valuable. The simplicity of the process is as obvious as it is terrifying. We still haven’t answered the question: what would the Biden administration do differently if it wanted to impoverish the American people by making them wards of the state?
I think I know the answer, and I’d say that it involves the quotation attributed to Tocqueville: “The American Republic will endure until the day Congress discovers that it can bribe the public with the public’s money.” What then?
I think I know the answer to that one, too. Alas, you do as well.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s July 2022 World edition.