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Who’s Negative?


Why is it considered negative campaigning to say, “My opponent has a credibility problem,” but it is not negative to say, “We’re for the people; they’re for the powerful”?

According to virtually all mainstream observers, the first is a vicious accusation, while the second is a constructive discussion of the issues. But the second is as much an attack on credibility as the first. It’s just more subtle.

When Vice President Al Gore says Gov. George W. Bush favors the rich and powerful over the people, he perforce is calling him a scoundrel and a liar.

Take taxes. Mr. Bush proposes to reduce tax rates across the board, giving every taxpayer a tax cut. Mr. Gore says this is a “giveaway” to the rich at the expense of working families. That’s a serious charge. The implication is that Mr. Bush wants to take something that belongs to working families and give it to rich people. That’s not quite what he would do. First, as the Wall Street Journal points out, the tax cut would give a bigger cut, in percentage terms, to lower-income people than to high-income people. The taxes of a family of four making $35,000 would drop 100 percent, while people with incomes over $100,000 would see their taxes fall by only 10 percent.

But let’s assume Mr. Gore is right that the tax cut is mainly for the rich. Is something unseemly going on? No, because the rich pay most of the income taxes. A recent Statistics of Income Bulletin points out that in 1997 the top 1 percent paid more than 33 percent of the revenue hauled in by the personal income tax. The top 5 percent paid more than half! The bottom 50 percent of earners paid a mere 4 percent.

In what way could a tax cut for the rich come at the expense of others? Money belongs to those who earn it, and a tax cut simply leaves money in the hands of its producers. It is taxes, not tax cuts, that deprive people of money to which they are entitled.

Perhaps Mr. Gore means that working families would be better off if the government had the rich people’s money. But we know that is nonsense. The rich do most of the saving and investing. That raises everyone’s standard of living by providing better and cheaper goods and services, and more productive jobs. The rich consume only a tiny percentage of their income. But even their consumption makes others better off. Back in 1990, Congress, in a fit of class envy, passed a tax on yachts and jewelry. Guess what happened. The rich bought fewer luxuries or bought imports. This put American workers out of jobs, so the Democrats repealed the tax — a tacit confession that “trickle-down” economics (more like cascade-down economics) is valid.

Good things happen when the rich (and everyone else) keep their money. The same cannot be said when the government gets it. Government is big on promises and bigger on not fulfilling them. The history of the federal government is a chronicle of boondoggles, corruption, and the destruction of wealth. As Henry David Thoreau once said, “This government never furthered any enterprise but by the alacrity with which it got out of the way.”

If Mr. Bush wanted to get really negative, he could say that Mr. Gore apparently wants people to die, because his prescription drug plan will inevitably impose price controls, which will prevent development of lifesaving medicines. It would be a nasty thing to say, but the underlying logic would be valid. That’s exactly what the Gore plan would do. Mr. Bush, alas, has disarmed himself by embracing his own brand of prescription-drug socialism.

Since wealthier people tend to be healthier and live longer, Mr. Bush might further point out that by impeding the creation of wealth, Mr. Gore’s policies would condemn the poor to poor health and shorter lives. I’m sure Mr. Gore is not motivated by a wish to see people suffer. No, he’s motivated by a condescending desire for power and is just too busy to figure out what the consequences would be.

This post was written by:

Sheldon Richman is former vice president and editor at The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.