Commentary

Jack Kemp — A Dissenting View

I know I’ll probably catch hell for saying this, but no matter how nice a fellow Jack Kemp was, no matter how genuine his care for the poor might have been, no matter how compelling a political figure he was, and no matter how inspiring he was to a generation of young conservatives — and he was all of those things, as has been pointed out repeatedly — I think his political career ultimately did the cause of limited government more harm than good.

Jack Kemp was greatly responsible for the now widely embraced GOP argument that cutting federal spending is for the most part economically unnecessary and politically counterproductive. Cut taxes, he argued, and we’ll have more than enough federal money to cover existing federal spending commitments, more economic growth to enjoy, and more voters to win. Like Newt Gingrich, his complaint about government was that it went about its job inefficiently, not that it went about doing things that the federal government simply shouldn’t be doing. Ambitious calls to cut federal expenditures during the Reagan years constantly ran into opposition from Jack Kemp.

It sure would be nice if tax cuts alone could deliver all of the wonders advertised by Jack Kemp, but alas, that proved not to be the case. Tax cuts in lieu of spending cuts neither starved the beast nor made government more affordable. It proved politically popular (for a while at least), but it simply transferred wealth from the future to the present and put the first nail (of many to come) in the coffin of the political movement launched by Barry Goldwater. Jack Kemp was not simply unenthusiastic about budget cutting; he was positively hostile to it.

While Jack Kemp’s many speeches in defense of capitalism and entrepreneurship were often inspiring, he never understood what Milton Friedman spent a lifetime patiently explaining: that government spending was the true tax on the private sector. One way or another, all federal dollars come from the private (productive) sector. They might be taxed away, of course, but they might also be borrowed (meaning that taxpayers tomorrow will pay for spending today … with interest!) or confiscated indirectly via the printing press (that is, via inflation).

The same holds true for the campaign to rein in federal regulation. From union rules to racial preferences, Jack Kemp often kept company with those who wished to use state power to advance some vision of the public good. While it’s nice to see a Republican actually care about the public good, it’s not so nice to see conservatives embracing government force to secure those visions.

And while Jack Kemp often spoke passionately against foreign tyranny, his rhetorical and political opposition to the same broke down when personal gain was in play. His paid lobbying efforts to defend Hugo Chávez against political attack here in the United States were terribly disappointing to those of us who were once inspired by his eloquent appreciation for human liberty.

Jack Kemp had many, many positive personal and political qualities. But the sooner conservatives put his policy agenda behind them, the sooner they can become serious about doing what God put them on this earth to do — rolling back the state.

Jerry Taylor is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.