In the 1968 presidential election that pitted Democrat Hubert H. Humphrey against Republican Richard M. Nixon, American Independent Party candidate George C. Wallace famously quipped that there was not a dime’s worth of difference between the two major political parties. Since Wallace made that observation, we have had every conceivable combination of Democrats and Republicans in the White House, the Senate, and the House.
We have seen Democrats control both Houses of Congress and the presidency, Republicans control both Houses of Congress and the presidency, a Democrat in the White House while Republicans controlled both Houses of Congress, a Republican in the White House while Democrats controlled both Houses of Congress, a Democrat in the White House while Democrats and Republicans each controlled one House of Congress, and a Republican in the White House while Republicans and Democrats each controlled one House of Congress.
But no matter what the political party combination has been, the results are the same: the federal budget increases every year, congressional spending increases every year, the national debt increases every year; civil liberties and property rights are continually trampled on, the federal government becomes more intrusive every year; U.S. foreign policy is still reckless, belligerent, and meddling, the U.S. empire with its hundreds of bases and thousands of troops spreads its tentacles over more parts of the globe; the welfare state continues to redistribute wealth; tens of thousands of Americans are still incarcerated for nonviolent crimes; and government at all levels continues to regulate almost every area of commerce and life.
That doesn’t mean that Democrats and Republicans don’t claim to be different, even polar opposites.
The socialist and statist policies of the Democratic Party are well known. It is the party of liberalism, socialism, progressivism, paternalism, collectivism, social justice, economic egalitarianism, organized labor, government regulation, public education, government-mandated employee benefits, environmentalism, an ever-increasing minimum wage, anti-discrimination laws, affirmative action, welfare, higher taxes on “the rich,” income-transfer programs, and wealth-redistribution schemes. The Democratic solution to every problem, injustice, or crisis is invariably more government, more government intervention, or more government money. But at least Democrats are sometimes honest about being desirous of a more intrusive and more interventionist government instead of masquerading as advocates of the opposite, as the hypocritical Republicans do.
Most Republicans maintain how conservative they are, and especially at election time. They claim to be the party of the Constitution that stands for limited government, federalism, individual freedom, private property, traditional values, capitalism, free enterprise, free trade, and a strong national defense. The truth, of course, is that Republicans only selectively believe in those things, as they also believe in massive government intervention at home and abroad, the prohibition of moral harm, federal supremacy, and the welfare/warfare/surveillance state. The only limited government Republicans desire is a government limited to control by Republicans.
A case in point
The similarity of not just the two major political parties, but their underlying ideologies of liberalism and conservatism, is no more evident than when it comes to the subject of taxation. Both groups have no philosophical objection to taxation. Both groups believe in making “the rich” pay their “fair share.” Both groups believe in using the tax code for social-engineering purposes and income-redistribution schemes. Both groups believe in revenue-neutral tax reform, but not reduction or tax elimination. They may argue about tax types, forms, rates, brackets, exemptions, deductions, credits, phase-outs, and bases, but, in the end, both groups believe that government has a claim to a certain percentage of every American’s income. What that percentage is, what it should be applied to, and how it should be collected is something that liberals and conservatives disagree on between each other and among themselves.
It is not just the income tax that should come to mind when the subject of taxation is broached. There are a myriad of other taxes that Americans are saddled with and countless more that politicians would like to impose. And it is not just liberals who sanction them. While recently on the website of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) — a conservative think tank “committed to making the intellectual, moral, and practical case for expanding freedom, increasing individual opportunity, and strengthening the free enterprise system in America and around the world” — I was shocked to read articles calling for an increase in the existing federal gas tax and the imposition of a new carbon tax.
The current federal excise tax on gasoline is 18.4 cents per gallon. State gas taxes on top of this range from a low of 14.7 cents per gallon in Alaska to a high of 58.7 cents per gallon in Pennsylvania. And then there are local taxes and “other” taxes placed on gasoline. But the federal tax is not high enough, says an AEI “resident scholar”:
Although a gas tax set too high would be inefficient, a 25-cent increase in the federal gasoline tax would remain safely below the optimal tax rate for the United States and far below typical gas tax rates in other countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
After all, “even when the secondary effect of higher prices for other goods is included, the burden of the gas tax relative to income is small or negligible.” But is not a hike in the gas tax a regressive tax increase that will hurt the poorest of families? Yes it is, but “a simple compensation scheme targeting the poorest households could feasibly protect them from the hardship of a gas tax while still increasing net revenue and providing efficiency benefits.” Using “only a small fraction of revenues to offset the burden” on the poorest households “would reduce or eliminate the regressivity of a carbon tax while leaving enough revenue to meet other needs.” Our AEI resident scholar concludes,
In general, a gas tax hike is worth considering. It would help us meet environmental goals and reduce traffic congestion, and the revenue could be used to fund infrastructure spending. To address concerns about politicians misusing the funds, revenues from a gas tax could be earmarked for specific projects and types of expenditures to ensure that they are not diverted to other, less efficient uses.
And it’s not just the AEI. A few years ago, a popular conservative writer in the right-wing National Review proclaimed that “there may be circumstances under which a gas-tax hike would be a good idea.”
As if a defense of an increase in the federal gas tax on a right-of-center website weren’t bad enough, the same AEI resident scholar then proposes a new carbon tax. Such a tax “is appealing because it serves the dual purpose of benefiting the environment and generating significant revenue to use to achieve other goals.” Although, like a gas tax, a carbon tax is regressive, “good policy design can offset this regressivity” by channeling part of the “revenues from a carbon tax” to “fund an expansion of the EITC, thus using a regressive tax to fund a progressive benefit.”
Higher taxes, new taxes, more government subsidies, expansion of welfare, using the tax code for social engineering — with conservatives like that, who needs liberals?
In contrast to the statism and authoritarianism of both liberalism and conservatism is libertarianism. This is simply the philosophy which says that people should have the freedom to live their lives any way they choose, do with their property as they will, participate in any economic activity for their profit, engage in commerce with anyone who is willing to reciprocate, accumulate as much wealth as they desire, and spend the fruits of their labor as they see fit — all without license, permission, regulation, or interference from the government — as long as their actions are peaceful, their associations are voluntary, their interactions are consensual, and they don’t violate the personal or property rights of others.
Libertarianism respects freedom of conscience, personal freedom, individual liberty, personal and financial privacy, free assembly, free association, free speech, and free expression — as long as they are not used to violate the personal or property rights of others. Libertarianism champions free enterprise, free exchange, free trade, free markets, laissez faire, and private property — as long as they are not used to violate the personal or property rights of others.
The essence of libertarianism is its nonaggression principle. Aggression is theft, fraud, the initiation of nonconsensual violence, or the threat of nonconsensual violence. Libertarians believe that everyone should be free from aggression against his person or property as long as he respects the person and property of others. Aggression against the person or property of others is always wrong. Aggression is justified only in defense of person or property or retaliation against the same, but is not required.
But unlike liberalism and conservatism, libertarianism strictly and consistently applies the nonaggression principle to actions of government. After all, as all of history shows, governments are the greatest violators of liberty, property, and the nonaggression principle. The nonconsensual initiation of aggression against the person or property of others is always wrong — even when done by government. Libertarians maintain that as long as people don’t infringe the liberty of others by committing, or threatening to commit, acts of fraud, theft, aggression, or violence against their person or property, the government should just leave them alone and not interfere with their pursuit of happiness, commerce, personal decisions, economic enterprises, or what they do on or with their own property. Libertarians hold that in a free society, the functions of government — in whatever form it exists — should be limited to defense against, prosecution of, and exacting restitution from those who initiate violence against, commit fraud against, or otherwise violate the personal or property rights of others. All government actions beyond reasonable defense, judicial, and policing functions are illegitimate.
So then, what is the libertarian position on taxation? The conclusion is inescapable: taxation is government theft. It doesn’t matter whether the government calls it an excise tax, a carbon tax, or an income tax. It all amounts to a seizure of one’s wealth by the government no matter what “noble” purpose the government says it “needs” the money for. Libertarians reason that acquiring someone’s property by force is wrong, whether done by individuals or governments. And if it be argued that people the world over voluntarily pay their taxes, the answer is that they certainly do. They voluntarily pay their taxes just as they voluntarily hand over their purses or wallets to an armed robber who points a gun in their face and says, “Give me your money or else.” It is no wonder that a report published in December of 2018 by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) revealed that at the end of 2017, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) had “4,487 guns and 5,062,006 rounds of ammunition in its weapons inventory.”
When it comes to the subject of taxation, liberals and conservatives waste their time asking the wrong questions:
- What is the optimal tax rate?
- How much additional revenue will a tax increase bring in?
- Should tax reform be revenue-neutral?
- How can we expand the tax base?
- How much does a tax deduction or credit cost the government?
- How progressive should the tax code be?
- Should the income tax be replaced with a consumption tax?
- How can we simplify the tax code while still collecting the same amount in tax revenue?
- What does the Laffer Curve show about tax-rate increases?
- What portion of a tax credit should be refundable?
- Should we change to a flat tax?
- What should the top marginal tax rate be?
- At what income level should tax deductions and credits be phased out?
- Are the rich paying their fair share of taxes?
- How can we offset the regressivity of a tax?
- How many tax brackets should there be?
- What should the tax brackets be?
- How can we close tax loopholes?
All of these questions are irrelevant, says the libertarian. The government is not entitled to a portion of any American’s income. All Americans — including “the rich” — should be free to keep the fruits of their labor and spend their money as they see fit.
It is not just on the subject of taxation that liberals and conservatives — and Democrats and Republicans, progressives and populists, and moderates and centrists — ask the wrong questions. Consider the following issues and the typical questions that liberals and conservatives ask about them.
Marijuana legalization. Is marijuana a gateway drug? Should marijuana be legal for medical purposes? Should marijuana be legalized and taxed and regulated like tobacco? All of those questions are irrelevant, says the libertarian. The war on drugs is a war on freedom. The government has no business being concerned about the commercial, medical, or recreational use of marijuana or any other drug. It should never expend resources to arrest, fine, or imprison people for growing, manufacturing, buying, selling, using, or possessing any drug.
Education. Should the government provide educational vouchers so low-income children can escape failing public schools and attend “the school of their choice”? Should prayer and Bible reading be restored to public schools? Should there be more technology in the classroom? All of those questions are irrelevant, says the libertarian. No American should be forced to pay for the education of any other American. And it is an illegitimate purpose of government to have anything to do with education.
Minimum wage. How often should the minimum wage be raised? Is it possible for anyone to actually live on the minimum wage? Should the minimum wage be increased to $15 an hour? All of those questions are irrelevant, says the libertarian. Wages should be negotiated between employers and employees on an individual or group basis without any government involvement whatsoever.
Medicaid. Should all of the states expand their Medicaid programs? Should Medicaid recipients be required to work a certain number of hours per week? Should the federal government provide more money to the states for Medicaid? All of those questions are irrelevant, says the libertarian. No American should be forced to pay for the health care of any other American. And it is an illegitimate purpose of government to subsidize or have anything to do with heath care or health insurance.
Social Security. How much of a COLA should Social Security recipients receive next year? How quickly should the Social Security retirement age be raised? Should Social Security be “saved” for future generations. All of those questions are irrelevant, says the libertarian. The government should never take money from those who work and transfer it to those who don’t. And it is an illegitimate purpose of government to have a retirement program, an investment program, a disability program, or a safety net.
Gun-control laws. How long should the waiting period be before one can legally purchase a gun? Should the gun-show “loophole” be closed? Should “assault rifles” be banned? All of those questions are irrelevant, says the libertarian. The federal government has no authority whatsoever to pass any laws that relate in any way to weapons, ammunition, waiting periods, or background checks.
Foreign aid. Should a country’s foreign aid be tied to its human- rights record? Should the United States give more foreign aid to Israel because it is our ally in the Middle East? Should countries receiving U.S. foreign aid be expected to vote with the United States at the United Nations? All of those questions are irrelevant, says the libertarian. The government should never take money out of the pockets of Americans and put it in the hands of foreigners or their governments. All foreign aid should be private and voluntary.
Universal basic income. Would a universal basic income (or a guaranteed minimum income) be more efficient than the government’s current welfare programs? Should some people receive a higher income than others? How should a universal basic income be funded? All of those questions are irrelevant, says the libertarian. The government should never take money from some Americans and redistribute it to other Americans.
Food stamps. How many hours a week should food stamp recipients be required to work? Should food stamp benefits be adjusted every year for inflation? What foods and beverages should not be eligible for purchase with food stamps? All of those questions are irrelevant, says the libertarian. The government should not take money from some Americans and use it to feed other Americans. All food aid should be private and voluntary.
Art subsidies. What should the budget of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) be? Should the NEA be allowed to fund pornographic art? Should the NEA be allowed to fund blasphemous art? All of those questions are irrelevant, says the libertarian. It is always immoral for the government to take resources from some Americans and redistribute them to organizations, even nonprofits, that they might subsidize certain people and events — no matter how good or noble the cause. Once the premise is accepted that the government should subsidize the arts, no reasonable argument can be made against the government’s subsidizing any activity.
Family leave. Should family leave be paid or unpaid? Should part-time workers be eligible for family leave? How many weeks off should family-leave programs provide? All of those questions are irrelevant, says the libertarian. The government has no right to dictate the type and nature of fringe benefits that employers provide their employees. Whether an employer offers family leave, whether it is paid or unpaid, and what the length of it is, is a matter to be settled by agreement between the employer and employee.
Anti-discrimination laws. Should sexual orientation and gender identity be added to anti-discrimination laws? Should employers be required to provide religious accommodations? Is there a right to service? All of these questions are irrelevant, says the libertarian. There should be no anti-discrimination laws in the first place. Anti-discrimination laws are an attack on freedom of association, property rights, freedom of contract, and freedom of thought. Since discrimination — against anyone, on any basis, and for any reason — is not aggression, force, or violence, the government should never prohibit it, seek to prevent it, or punish anyone for doing it.
Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, progressives and populists, moderates and centrists, and even most of those who call themselves constitutionalists — they never have the right answers because they never ask the right questions.
This article was originally published in the May 2019 edition of Future of Freedom.