Commentary

Summer Reading for the Freedom-Minded

This article appeared in the Japan Times on July 12, 1999.
Today the United States is an international colossus, an economic and military superpower that dominates the globe. But can the U.S. maintain that position? Perhaps not, unless it begins reforming its economic policies.

America’s awful tax system is diagnosed by Amity Shlaes in her book, The Greedy Hand: How Taxes Drive Americans Crazy and What to Do About It (Random House). Shlaes, an editorial writer for the Wall Street Journal, has penned a delightful account of how taxes came to pervade American society. Indeed, there is virtually no aspect of life in what is supposed to be the land of rugged individualism not affected by taxes: family, marriage, employment and more.

Shlaes calls for lower and simpler taxes. In particular, she advocates a tax code that “looks as if somebody designed it on purpose. Not a giant machine that collects our money merely to feed the monster.”

Perhaps equally serious is the impending financial collapse of Social Security, America’s public pension system. Although countries ranging from Chile to Britain to Singapore have moved toward a private, market-based system, most American politicians remain afraid to touch the system.

The National Academy of Social Insurance has produced a useful volume on the subject, Framing the Social Security Debate: Values, Politics, and Economics. The book is helpful and informative, though it leans unduly against privatization, the only real answer to a system about to be overwhelmed by the demographic shift toward an older society that now affects most developed countries.

What happens on Social Security and many other issues depends on the next presidential election. Vice President Al Gore, the leading Democratic contender, has been attempting to distance himself from President Bill Clinton and portray himself as a moderate. But Bob Zelnick, a former correspondent for ABC News, demonstrates otherwise in his book Gore: A Political Life, from Regnery Publishing.

Unlike Clinton, Gore is a man of personal virtue. But he conducts blood feuds against his political opponents and even scientists who dispute his extreme views on the environment. Though tasked by Clinton with “reinventing” government, Gore has long been a big taxer and spender. Moreover, he has shamelessly flip-flopped on politically sensitive issues like abortion.

There may be no more important international relationship today than that between the U.S. and China. Much of the tension results from Beijing’s spying. Aggravating that unfortunate if not unusual activity has been the Clinton administration’s sordid fundraising during the 1996 campaign. In Year of the Rat: How Bill Clinton Compromised U.S. Security for Chinese Cash (Regnery), Edward Timperlake and William Triplett conclude that administration officials sold out American security for cash.

Why it is nevertheless important for Washington and Beijing to maintain a passable relationship comes from reading Big Dragon: China’s Future, newly released in paperback from Simon & Schuster. Daniel Burstein and Arne de Keijzer predict that China will achieve the world’s largest economy in the 2030s and “will increasingly emerge as a superpower in every sense - economically, politically, militarily, culturally, technologically.” What direction China’s development takes will be critically important for countries around the world, particular Beijing’s neighbors.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.