Liberals Have Robin Hood All Wrong

Andrew E. Busch

April 1, 2002

Tax day has come and gone again, leaving millions of Americans scratching their heads at the complexity and irrationality of the federal tax code in an annual ritual of frustration. To add to the mix of the absurd, Americans are increasingly hearing calls from congressional Democrats and their political base for a postponement or outright cancellation of the tax cut enacted last year. Democrats have thus re-confirmed that they are now the party of Herbert Hoover’s fiscal policy; a tax cut that passed when the economy seemed stronger is now under fire when the economy is staggering out of a recession, exactly when a tax cut is needed most.

Of course, liberals prefer to see themselves as moral descendents of Robin Hood, rather than intellectual heirs of Hooverism. Democrats are frequently heard making the Robin Hood analogy in reverse, claiming that the Bush administration’s budget, including tax cuts and social spending restraint, would take from the poor and give to the rich. Leaving aside the detail that a tax cut allowing someone to keep more of his earnings is not “giving” him anything that is not already his, the adoption of Robin Hood as the patron saint of liberalism cries out for correction. To the contrary, it is conservatives who should extol Mr. Hood as one of their own. All one has to do is to consult the Disney films’ animated version of Robin Hood—as I did with my two small children last weekend—to find at least four reasons why one would not find Robin Hood voting for Al Gore or John Kerry if his feathered hat depended on it.

  • As one wag perceptively pointed out some time ago, Robin Hood’s claim to fame was not that he took from the rich to give to the poor, but that he took from the tax collector and gave back to the people their own money. The central issue was overtaxation, and Robin Hood was most emphatically not on the side of the bureaucracy. The ultimate bad guy was Prince John, the very caricature of greedy, arrogant government; the proximate bad guy was the Sheriff of Nottingham, the ruthless enforcer whose audit strategy was even more intimidating than that of the IRS. The victims were the taxpayers whose property was confiscated to feed John’s insatiable lust for higher revenues. As Robin Hood speeds to its exciting conclusion, Friar Tuck adopts as his battle cry, “Praise the Lord and pass the tax rebate!”
  • Robin Hood was waging a struggle not only against overtaxation but against illegitimate, unconstitutional government. As the characters ridicule “Prince John, the phony king of England,” they are staking their fight on the view that John has overstepped his legal and constitutional bounds. He had, in other words, gone beyond the exercise of powers rightfully his. Unimpressed with Prince John’s living constitution, which bore a disturbing resemblance to a regime of raw, unconstrained power, Robin Hood and his merry band seem to prefer a stricter construction.
  • At the same time, they are emboldened to resist John’s usurpation by a sense that acts of government must be tested not only against the written law but against natural law. John has violated not only the law of England, he has waged war against the law of God. The disrespect held by John and his minions for the law of God—or, to put it another way, their attempt to elevate his rule above any sort of limit, human or divine—is epitomized when the Sheriff of Nottingham robs even Friar Tuck’s church to pad the revenues. The idea of natural law can, of course, be put to a variety of uses, not all of which conservatives find agreeable, but one of the most distinct features of the modern left is a moral nihilism which denies the possibility of higher objective truth, and consequently denies the possibility of inherent limits on the ambitions of the state. To the extent that Robin Hood sought to hold John’s regime to an unwritten standard of limitation and accountability, modern liberals can hardly claim him as one of their own.
  • Not least, Robin Hood and his band remained loyal to the duly constituted authority, King Richard the Lionhearted. And what was King Richard off doing while John was playing at home? Fighting Saracens in a crusade to save the Christian holy sites in the Middle East from Muslim conquest. Not much one for the aggressive secularism and the multicultural platitudes that serve as the de facto religion of American liberalism, that Richard.

So what do we make of Robin Hood, properly interpreted? A supporter of low taxes, a government limited by strict constitutional construction and natural law, and offensive military expeditions against the Saddam Husseins of his time. The next time Ted Kennedy takes the floor of the U.S. Senate to demand higher taxes in the name of Robin Hood, let a prize go to the first to respond: “Praise the Lord and pass the tax rebate!”

Andrew E. Busch is an Adjunct Fellow of the John M. Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs and an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Denver, where he specializes in American government and politics. Dr. Busch is the author of Ronald Reagan and the Politics of Freedom. He is also the co-author of The Perfect Tie: The True Story of the 2000 Presidential Election.