Tag: freedom

Why Did Western Nations Continue to Prosper in the 20th Century even though Fiscal Burdens Increased?

In the pre-World War I era, the fiscal burden of government was very modest in North America and Western Europe. Total government spending consumed only about 10 percent of economic output, most nations were free from the plague of the income tax, and the value-added tax hadn’t even been invented.

Today, by contrast, every major nation has an onerous income tax and the VAT is ubiquitous. Those punitive tax systems exist largely because—on average—the burden of government spending now consumes more than 40 percent of GDP.

historical-size-of-govt

To be blunt, fiscal policy has moved dramatically in the wrong direction over the past 100-plus years. And thanks to demographic change and poorly designed entitlement programs, things are going to get much worse, according to Bank of International Settlements, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and International Monetary Fund projections.

While those numbers, both past and future, are a bit depressing, they also present a challenge to advocates of small government. If taxes and spending are bad for growth, why did the United States (and other nations in the Western world) enjoy considerable prosperity all through the 20th century? I sometimes get asked that question after speeches or panel discussions on fiscal policy. In some cases, the person making the inquiry is genuinely curious. In other cases, it’s a leftist asking a “gotcha” question.

Long-Run GDP

I’ve generally had two responses.

Freedom Banned in Washington

It’s hardly big news, right? Another of our freedoms gets banned in Washington every day. But this time it’s not just particular constitutional rights. They don’t like the whole idea. Or at least the word, on a license plate. 

The District of Columbia allows residents to purchase vanity license plates. And as Chris Moody and Chris Wilson of Yahoo! News describe, there are strict rules about what you can say on your vanity plate:

According to the official list of banned D.C. plate combinations, it may take some extra creativity to get your idea accepted by the city’s meticulous censors. The capital city’s DMV has a 53-page list of 26,993 license plate no-no’s that prohibit everything from praising the local baseball team to expressing disgust with the Internal Revenue Service. The list was made available through a Freedom of Information Request filed by the transparency website GovernmentAttic.org.

You can check out your own ideas at the interactive tester below. Moody and Wilson note that you can’t have such interesting plates as “GOPSUX,” “GODEMS,” “RONPAUL, “”GVTSUX,” ANTIIRS,” “OBAMA,” “BARACK,” or “OBAMA44.”

And that’s right, you can’t have a license plate reading “FREEDOM.”

You can have “LIBERTY,” though, which might suffice. Wonder how they made that distinction. I tried a few other ideas. I once noted that Starbucks wouldn’t let you print “laissez-faire” on a customized Starbucks card. D.C. is more accommodating and has no objection to “LFAIRE.” “GAY” is OK, and perhaps surprisingly so are “HOMO” and “ANTIGAY.” I’ll bet the list of banned words will be constantly growing. “FEMNIST” passes muster, and so does “ANTIFEM.” But don’t try “SEX” or “SEXY.”

Moody and Wilson noted that you can’t have “RONPAUL” or “OBAMA.” But you can have “JEBBUSH”—who is speaking at Cato tomorrow, by the way—or “JEB2016” or “JEB45.” Also “HILLARY” and “BIDEN16.” (“CHRISTIE” is too long, but you can have “CHRISTI” or indeed “CHRIST.”) Hmmm, I’m beginning to wonder why you can’t have “RONPAUL.” But you can have “RAND,” “RAND16,” or indeed “AYNRAND.”

Try your own combinations. Just don’t expect to get “FREEDOM.”

Despite their Moral Preening, Statists Would Not Want to Live in a World without Capitalism

Part of my job is to educate people about free markets and fiscal policy.

In some cases, that means providing information and analysis to those already sympathetic to limited government. There are many people who like the idea of lower tax burdens, for instance, but they may not have given much thought to the interaction of tax rates, taxable income, and tax revenue, so that’s why I put together my Laffer Curve tutorial and why I wrote about this amazing data from the Reagan tax cuts.

A more challenging part of my job is reaching people with statist instincts. I wrote a post last week mocking an absurd example of Swedish egalitarianism, but I included some serious thoughts about why some people oppose liberty. How do I reach those people, especially when there’s some very interesting evidence showing fundamental differences in how liberals, conservatives, and libertarians see the world?

I don’t have a single answer to that question. Sometimes I use the utilitarian approach and show how capitalist nations outperform statist nations, as you can see in this comparison of North Korea and South Korea, and this post comparing Argentina, Chile, and Venezuela.

In other cases, I try a philosophical approach, one example of which is this video arguing against majoritarianism.

And sometimes I use horrifying anecdotes in hopes that people will realize the risks of unconstrained government.

But perhaps the folks at the Fund for American Studies have discovered a good way of educating statists. Take a look at this clever video.

P.S. Here’s another video from TFAS that uses an unusual tactic to get people to think about the value of capitalism and free markets.

A Dan Mitchell Debate Fantasy

In this modern era where we’re all supposed to share our innermost thoughts, I’ve openly discussed my fantasies.

I confessed to the world, for instance, that I have a fantasy that involves about one-half of the adults in America. And I’ve also admitted to a fantasy involving Gov. Rick Perry of Texas.

Now I’m fantasizing about something new, and it’s all the fault of the Cato Institute. In a violation of the Constitution’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, I have to watch tonight’s presidential debate in order to add my two cents to Cato’s live-blogging of the clash between Obama and Romney.

That got me thinking about some of my least-favorite episodes from past debates, and this moment from 1992 is high on my list (I had to watch that debate because my then-wife worked for the Bush Administration and I had to offer some insincere moral support).

The clip is a bit over three minutes, but it will only take a minute or so to see why this was such an unpleasant segment.

Here’s my latest fantasy. If there’s a similar question tonight, I hope either Romney or Obama gives the following response:

I’m not your daddy and you’re not my child. I’m running to be the President of the United States in order to oversee the legitimate executive branch responsibilities of the federal government. And I hope to reduce the burden of government to give you opportunities, not to take care of your needs. You’re an able-bodied adult. Take responsibility for your own life and provide for your own needs.

But I don’t expect my fantasy to get fulfilled. If a question like this is asked, both Obama and Romney almost surely will express sympathy and support.

The good news is that there have been a few politicians in American’s history who have been willing to say the right thing. Here’s a quote from Barry Goldwater that warms my heart.

I have little interest in streamlining government or in making it more efficient, for I mean to reduce its size. I do not undertake to promote welfare, for I propose to extend freedom. My aim is not to pass laws, but to repeal them. … I will not attempt to discover whether legislation is “needed” before I have first determined whether it is constitutionally permissible. And if I should later be attacked for neglecting my constituents’ “interests,” I shall reply that I was informed that their main interest is liberty and that in that cause I am doing the very best I can.

The bad news is that he got his you-know-what kicked in the 1964 election.

On the other hand, America did elect a president who said during his inauguration that “government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.”

And a 2011 poll showed that Americans—unlike their European counterparts—do not believe it is government’s job to guarantee that “nobody is in need.”

In other words, Julia, the fictional moocher woman created by the Obama campaign, is not representative of America. At least not yet.

Cato Study: Heretofore Unreported ObamaCare ‘Bug’ Puts IPAB Completely beyond Congress’ Reach

Today, the Cato Institute releases a new study by Diane Cohen and me titled, “The Independent Payment Advisory Board: PPACA’s Anti-Constitutional and Authoritarian Super-Legislature.” Cohen is a senior attorney at the Goldwater Institute and lead counsel in the Coons v. Geithner lawsuit challenging IPAB and other aspects of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010, a.k.a. ObamaCare.

From the executive summary:

When the unelected government officials on this board submit a legislative proposal to Congress, it automatically becomes law: PPACA requires the Secretary of Health and Human Services to implement it. Blocking an IPAB “proposal” requires at a minimum that the House and the Senate and the president agree on a substitute. The Board’s edicts therefore can become law without congressional action, congressional approval, meaningful congressional oversight, or being subject to a presidential veto. Citizens will have no power to challenge IPAB’s edicts in court.

Worse, PPACA forbids Congress from repealing IPAB outside of a seven-month window in the year 2017, and even then requires a three-fifths majority in both chambers…

IPAB’s unelected members will have effectively unfettered power to impose taxes and ration care for all Americans, whether the government pays their medical bills or not. In some circumstances, just one political party or even one individual would have full command of IPAB’s lawmaking powers. IPAB truly is independent, but in the worst sense of the word. It wields power independent of Congress, independent of the president, independent of the judiciary, and independent of the will of the people.

The creation of IPAB is an admission that the federal government’s efforts to plan America’s health care sector have failed. It is proof of the axiom that government control of the economy threatens democracy.

Importantly, this study reveals a heretofore unreported feature that makes this super-legislature even more authoritarian and unconstitutional:

[I]f Congress misses that repeal window, PPACA prohibits Congress from ever altering an IPAB “proposal.”

You read that right.

The Congressional Research Service and others have reported that even if Congress fails to repeal this super-legislature in 2017, Congress will still be able to use the weak tools that ObamaCare allows for restraining IPAB. Unfortunately, that interpretation rests on a misreading of a crucial part of the law. These experts thought they saw the word “or” where the statute actually says “and.”

How much difference can one little conjunction make?

Under the statute as written, if Congress fails to repeal IPAB in 2017, then as of 2020 Congress will have absolutely zero ability to block or amend the laws that IPAB writes, and zero power to affect the Secretary’s implementation of those laws. IPAB will become a permanent super-legislature, with the Secretary as its executive. And if the president fails to appoint any IPAB members, the Secretary will unilaterally wield all of IPAB’s legislative and executive powers, including the power to appropriate funds for her own department. It’s completely nutty, yet completely consistent with the desire of ObamaCare’s authors to protect IPAB from congressional interference.

It’s also completely consistent with Friedrich Hayek’s prediction that government planning of the economy paves the way for authoritarianism.

The Great Tax Haven Debate, Part II

Back in April, responding to an article written by Ann Hollingshead for the Task Force on Financial Integrity and Economic Development, I wrote a long post defending so-called tax havens.

I went through the trouble of a point-by-point response because her article was quite reasonable and focused on some key moral and philosophical issues (rather than the demagoguery I normally have to deal with when people on the left reflexively condemn low-tax jurisdictions).

She responded to my response, and she raised additional points that deserve to be answered.

So here we go again. Let’s go through Ann’s article and see where we agree and disagree.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a blog post criticizing the philosophies of Dan Mitchell, a libertarian scholar from the Cato Institute. I asked for a “thoughtful discussion” and I got it—both from the comments section of our blog and from Dan himself.  On his own blog, Dan replied with a thought-provoking point-by-point critique of my piece.

It has been a polite discussion, which is good because readers get to see that we don’t really disagree on facts. Our differences are a matter of philosophy, as Ann also acknowledges.

Dan made several interesting points in his rebuttal. As much as I’d like to take on the whole post right now, my reply would be far too long and I don’t think our readers would appreciate a blog post that approaches a novella. Rather I’ll focus on a couple of his comments that I find interesting on a philosophical level (there were many) and which demand a continued conversation because, I believe, they are the basis of our differences. We’ll start with a rather offhand remark in which Dan indirectly refers to financial privacy as a human right. This is an argument we’ve heard before. And it is worth some exploration.Unless I am very much mistaken, Dan’s belief that financial privacy is a human right arises out of his fundamental value of freedom. My disagreement with Dan, therefore, does not arise from a difference in the desire to promote human rights (I believe we both do), but rather in the different relative weights we each place on the value of privacy, which Dan (I’m supposing) would call an extension of freedom.

I wouldn’t argue with her outline, though I think it is incomplete. I’m a big fan of privacy as a principle of a civil and just society, but I also specifically support financial privacy as a means to an end of encouraging better tax policy. Simply stated, politicians are much more likely to reduce or eliminate double taxation if they feel such taxes can’t be enforced and simply put a country in a much less competitive position.

Okay, so on to [my] answer of the subject of this post. Privacy—and financial privacy by extension—is important. But is it a human right? That’s a big phrase; one which humanity has no business throwing around, lest it go the way of “[fill in blank]-gate” or “war on [whatever].” And as Dan himself points out, governments have a way of fabricating human rights—apparently some European courts have ruled that free soccer broadcasts and owning a satellite dish are a human rights—so it’s important that we get back to [philosophical] basics and define the term properly. The nearly universally accepted definition of “human rights” was established by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which the United Nations adopted in 1948. According to the UN, “human rights” are those “rights inherent to all human beings,” regardless of “nationality, place of residence, sex, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, language, or any other status.” The Declaration includes 30 Articles which describe each of those rights in detail. “Financial privacy” per se is not explicitly a human right in this document, but “privacy” is, and I think it’s reasonable to include financial privacy by extension. But privacy is defined as a fundamental, not an absolute, human right. Absolute rights are those that there is never any justification for violating. Fundamental freedoms, including privacy and freedom from detention, can be ethically breached by the government, as long as they authorized by law and not arbitrary in practice. The government therefore has the right to regulate fundamental freedoms when necessary.

I’m not sure how to react. There are plenty of admirable provisions in the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but there are also some nonsensical passages - some of which completely contradict others.

Everyone hopefully agrees with the provisions against slavery and in favor of equality under law, but Article 25 of the U.N. Declaration also includes “the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services.”

That sounds like a blank check for redistributionism, similar to the statism that I experienced when I spoke at the U.N. last month, and it definitely seems inconsistent with the right of property in Article 17.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I don’t care that the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights includes a “right to privacy” because I don’t view that document as having any legal or moral validity. I don’t know whether it’s as bad as the European Union’s pseudo-constitution, but I do know that my support for privacy is not based on or dependent on a document from the United Nations.

As an aside, I can’t help noting that Articles 13 and 15 of the U.N. Declaration guarantee the right to emigrate and the right to change nationality, somethings leftists should keep in mind when they demonize successful people who want to move to nations with better tax law.

Getting back to Ann’s column, she confirms my point that you can’t protect property rights for some people while simultaneously giving other people a claim on their output.

That’s important because it means, that when it comes to freedom and privacy, we need to make choices. We can’t always have them all at once. To use a hideously crude example that gets back to the issue of tax evasion, in a developing country, a rich person’s right to financial privacy might be at odds with a poor person’s right to “a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family.”

For those who are not familiar with the type of discussion, it is the difference between “negative rights” promoted by classical liberals, which are designed to protect life, liberty, and property from aggression, and the “positive rights” promoted by the left, which are designed to legitimize the redistributionist state.

Tom Palmer has a good discussion of the topic here, and he notes that “positive rights” create conflict, writing that, “…classical liberal ‘negative’ rights do not conflict with each other, whereas ‘positive’ rights to be provided with things produce many conflicts. If my ‘right to health care’ conflicts with a doctor’s ‘right to liberty,’ which one wins out?”

Continuing with Ann’s article, she says values conflict with one another, though that’s only if true if one believes in positive rights.

I started this post with a discussion of values, because at the core that’s what we’re talking about. Values are relative, individual, and often in conflict with one another. And they define how we rank our choices between human rights. Dan values freedom, perhaps above most else. He might argue that economic freedom would lead to an enrichment of human rights at all levels, but he probably wouldn’t disagree that that thesis remains untested. My views are a little more complicated because I don’t get to enjoy the (albeit appealing and consistent) simplicity of libertarianism.

I’m tempted to say, “C’mon in, Ann, the water’s fine. Libertarianism is lots of fun.” To be a bit more serious, libertarianism is simple, but it’s not simplistic. You get to promote freedom and there’s no pressure to harass, oppress, or pester other people.

As my colleague David Boaz has stated, “You could say that you learn the essence of libertarianism — which is also the essence of civilization –  in kindergarten: don’t hit other people, don’t take their stuff, keep your promises.”

The world would be a lot better if more people rallied to this non-coercive system.

One more point. Dan mentioned he does “fully comply” with the “onerous demands imposed on [him] by the government.” But as Dan insinuates, irrespective of an individual’s personal values, those demands are not optional. In the United States, we have the luxury of electing a group of individuals to represent our collective values. Together those people make a vision for the country that reflects our ideals. And then, we all accept it. If our country got together and decided to value freedom above all else, we would live in a world that looks a lot like Dan’s utopia. But, frankly, it hasn’t. So we respect our tax code out of a respect for the vision of our country. Dan has the right to try to shape that vision, as do I. Neither of us has the right to violate it.

What Ann writes is true, but not persuasive. Libertarians don’t like untrammeled majoritarianism. We don’t think two wolves and a sheep should vote on what’s for lunch.

We like what our Founding Fathers devised, a constitutional republic where certain rights were inalienable and protected by the judicial system, regardless of whether 90 percent of voters want to curtail our freedoms.

Ann, as you can see from her final passage, does not agree.

That, at is heart, is my problem with both tax evasion and tax avoidance. Neither lines up with the spirit of our collective compact; although the latter is not necessarily reflected in the official laws on the books. I’m not saying tax avoiders should be thrown in jail; they’ve done nothing illegal. I’m saying the regulations that confine us should line up with the vision we’ve created and the values we’ve agreed upon. If that vision is Dan’s, I’ll accept it. But I’m glad he’ll (begrudgingly) accept ours too.

I’m not automatically against having a “collective compact.” After all, that’s one way of describing the American Constitution. But I will return to my point about America’s founders setting up that system precisely because they rejected majoritarianism.

So what does all this mean? Probably nothing, other than the less-than-remarkable revelation that Ann and I have different views on the legitimate role(s) of the federal government.

Since I want to restrain the size and scope of government (not only in America, but elsewhere in the world) and avert future Greek-style fiscal nightmares, that means I want tax competition. And, to be truly effective, that means tax havens.

If that appeals to you (or at least seems like a reasonably hypothesis), I invite you to read some writings by Allister Heath of the United Kingdom and Pierre Bessard of Switzerland.

Government, Education, and Freedom

I did the above interview recently with ChoiceMedia.tv on the subject of education tax credits and vouchers, in which I argued that credits are a better way of ensuring universal access to the education marketplace. Credits can either directly reduce the taxes owed by families who pay for their own children’s education (as in Illinois and Iowa), or they can offset donations taxpayers make to non-profit k-12 scholarship programs that provide tuition assistance to the poor (as in Pennsylvania, Arizona, Florida, and several other states).

The interview elicited an important question from a commenter: If financial assistance for the poor comes from scholarship programs, isn’t there a risk that those programs will impose restrictions on how the scholarships can be used, thereby curtailing poor families’ educational options?

Minimizing that problem is actually one of the many reasons to prefer education tax credits over vouchers. Any time someone other than the parents is footing the bill for a child’s education, there is the risk that this third party is going to limit parents’ choices. The worst case, historically, has been when that third party is the government. When governments pay for schooling, there is a single set of regulations on what choices parents can make, and there is no way to avoid those regulations short of rejecting the financial assistance altogether—which the poorest families have difficulty doing. Vouchers bring with them this single set of government rules (and it is often an extensive one as I discovered in this study).

By contrast, scholarship tax credit programs, like the one in Pennsylvania, give rise to a multitude of different organizations that provide tuition assistance to poor families. If any one of those organizations decides to impose a particular set of restrictions on the use of its scholarships, it has no effect on any of the other organizations. Parents looking for financial assistance are thus free to seek it from a scholarship organization that aligns with their needs and values. The multiplicity of different sources of funding is instrumental—in fact it is essential—in ensuring that poor parents’ choices are not curtailed.

I’ve made this argument in a variety of places, most recently in a U.S. Supreme Court brief in the Arizona tax credit case ACSTO v. Winn.

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