This Year’s Elections Are Not About Freedom

Politicians and media pundits on the “left” and the “right” are insistent that the congressional elections of November 2018 are a turning point for the country. From another perspective, however, it is merely a contest between two sides of the same political coin.

Democrats and progressives are adamant that what is at stake is nothing less than the future of democracy and social justice in America. They see it as a referendum on the current president and a racist, sexist, and possibly fascist United States.

A “Leftward” Turn to the Democratic Party

Nobel economist  Joseph Stiglitz, just the other day, insisted that this year’s elections are a test to find out whether the 2016 presidential contest was just a twisted fluke resulting from a flawed Republican primary process or a sign of an emerging politically dark and sick side to America.

He sees victory for the Democratic Party by steering hard political left with the socialist-style messages and promises of Bernie Sanders and Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez. He just hopes in his heart that what Americans really want is more cradle-to-the grave political paternalism. Otherwise, the end is nigh, with America sinking further into Trump’s sick world of racism and sexism and an inward turn against the rest of the globe.

Return Democrats and progressives to power, Stiglitz assures us, and Americans can have a blissful world of more government health care, better government retirement pensions, plentiful government-stimulated, well-paying, and secure middle-class jobs, and … well, you name it, and it all can be yours with little or no worry about the taxpayer price tag.

The Republicans Tied to Trump’s “Greatness”

The Republicans and conservatives, on the other hand, warn of economic and cultural Armageddon if they don’t retain control of Congress along with the White House. The deficits will grow, the welfare state will expand, government will intrude even more into your private lives, and we will be inundated by half of the world’s population clamoring to come to America and live off the welfare state while voting Democrat.

A Republican Party that two years ago was disheartened and depressed that it might be going down in flames in the 2016 elections because of the rude, crude, and crazy man who had won their presidential nomination is almost all head-over-heels with Trump now, with many congressional and senatorial candidates happy to have him go out on the stump with them as they run for election or reelection in this year’s voting.

We are talking about the man who thinks that trade wars are fun and easy to win; who thinks that raising the prices of consumer goods and resources through import tariffs makes Americans better off; who thinks that having government manipulate businesspersons about where they should open and operate their manufacturing facilities is “free enterprise”; and who believes that walls should be built to prevent people from freely and peacefully living, working, and traveling where they want.

He is a president who is shocked that a Saudi journalist who resides in the United States is killed and butchered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, but goes out on the campaign trail recently and praises a Republican candidate for body slamming a reporter whom that candidate did not like. A man who said during the 2016 campaign that he could shoot someone in the middle of Broadway and 42nd Street in New York City and still have millions of people support him, now is deeply saddened by fatalities resulting from an anti-Semite shooting in a synagogue in Pittsburgh.

Trauma Over Not Having Zero Interest Rates

We are talking about a president who in a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal explained that he is upset because the Federal Reserve has been increasing interest rates. Like a pouting child who is upset that his sibling got something that he did not, Trump said that, “I’m very unhappy with the Fed, because Obama had zero interest rates” but he does not. If only he, too, could have zero interest rates, “we’d have the greatest economy in history.”

He accused Jerome Powell, the Federal Reserve chairman that he appointed, of taking seemingly personal pleasure in raising interest rates and spoiling Trump’s economic party. “It almost looks like he’s happy raising interest rates,” Trump said about Powell. That interest rates are not policy playthings to be either pushed down to zero or pushed up to some hypothesized “neutral” level by central banks, but should be market prices competitively formed by supply and demand so they may effectively convey essential information to both savers and investors for successful economy-wide coordination, seems to elude the President. (See my article “Interest Rates Need to Tell the Truth.”)

What Are the Republicans Offering America?

Look beneath the mutual demonizing and warnings of the gates of hell being opened if “the other side” has power in Washington, D.C., and what do you see? You see two sides of the same political and economic policy coin — two versions of interventionist-welfare statism, one just enthusiastically wanting to go further down the road of increased government control and command than the other in its rhetoric and policy proposals.

For practically two years, the Republicans have been in charge of the executive and legislative branches of the federal government. How have they demonstrated their dedication to federal fiscal discipline?

The fiscal year that ended on September 20, 2018, saw Uncle Sam’s expenditures 3 percent higher than in 2017. Social Security payments increased by 5 percent; Medicare spending went up by 3 percent; and Medicaid outlays rose by 4 percent. Expenses related to the (Un)Affordable Care Act that the Republicans in Congress could not agree on totally abolishing increased by 17 percent. Homeland Security spending increased by 36 percent, and Department of Defense spending rose by 6.4 percent. With higher interest rates, interest on the national debt was 20 percent higher than in the preceding fiscal year.

This left the federal government on the cusp of a return to annual trillion-dollar deficits, with outlays exceeding revenues for the federal government by $782 billion. (According to the Congressional Budget Office, the deficit would have been $826 billion for 2018, if not for the fact that a weekend at the end of the fiscal year influenced when government payments came due.) Uncle Sam’s total national debt is rapidly approaching $21.7 trillion, with only a lot more to come. (See my article “$1 Trillion Deficits and the Crisis of the Entitlement State.”)

The fact is the Republicans are unwilling to deal with the reality that the core “entitlement” programs of the welfare state are unsustainable in the longer run. They refuse to face the electorate with the bad news that in the years and decades ahead, under current taxing and spending legislation, these programs will not have the financial resources to cover all the promised benefits to all those who shall be eligible. Therefore, they have no plan to grapple with and solve the national debt problem, other than to kick it down the road, as their Democratic Party competitors have done when they have held control of the congressional budgetary agenda.

Nor do they seem interested or willing to confront a president who believes in forms of national economic planning — not through direct control and command, but by using fiscal and regulatory tools to attempt to influence the direction and the content of American industry and manufacturing, and the creation of jobs in different parts of the country — and who is willing to use executive powers to impose taxes on imported goods as supposed retaliation for the “bad” trading practices of other nations as a bargaining tool. This, too, is a form of government planning as it impacts the type and amounts of foreign-made goods entering the United States, and therefore influences which American companies and industries get a positive nudge by the administration limiting global competition in the United States. (See my article “Trade Wars and Trade Walls Equal Government Planning.”)

The Republican Message: We’re Not the Democrats

What, then, are the Republicans offering the American public other than they are not the Democrats, and, therefore, the “loony lefties” whose policies would simply be worse in many ways than their own? Other than promises to follow Trump in making America great again, their stated policies offer no long-term transformation to a much freer country in terms of economic and social liberty.

Conservatives insist that they wish to conserve the founding traditions and freedoms upon which the country was established. But that time is long gone. For the better part of a century, now, the federal government has been eating away at many of those freedoms, especially in the realm of economic liberty. The government has also grown into a surveillance state, in which there is little that we do, and little about where we do it and who we do it with, that the prying eyes of our government do not know about.

The media has made much about the fact that federal and state law enforcement agencies were able to track down and apprehend in a matter of days the man accused of mailing those unexploded pipe bombs to a number of former presidents, politicians, and public figures.

But it needs to be remembered that such surveillance technologies that enable the government to capture “bad guys” also provide governments with the means of watching and controlling the people for whose supposed safety these devices are increasingly placed in society. The Chinese government has certainly been developing and installing them for its authoritarian purposes. It can be used for such purposes here, as well, in an era in which the reach and scope of governmental powers are taken for granted and even supported by so many.

What Are the Democrats Offering America?

What do the Democrats and progressives offer the country in this election, other than their distaste for and “resistance” to Donald Trump? Indeed, their singular underlying message on the campaign trail and in the media is that they will fight Donald Trump tooth and nail if they gain control of one or both of the houses of Congress. Their dream is to impeach Trump and throw him out of office since they do not consider him the legitimate president, anyway, since Hillary Clinton received more of the popular vote in the 2016 election.

But what would the Democrats and progressives do, if they were to gain political control of the machinery of government in Washington, D.C.? Their message has been clear: higher taxes, especially on “the rich”; more regulation of private enterprise and industry; expanded welfare-state programs (especially government single-payer national health care and “free” higher education for all); imposition of greater and new restrictions on the private sector in the name of fighting global warming; more government-sponsored jobs; and intensified political correctness and acquiescence in, if not legislative support for, “identity politics.” (See my articles “Collectivism’s Progress: From Marxism to Race and Gender Intersectionality” and “An ‘Identity Politics’ Victory Would Mean the End of Liberty.”)

With amazing irrational irresponsibility, those on “the left” who even address the question of funding all the government-program expansions and additions that they propose mostly talk as if there is this huge and bottomless chest of wealth from which to draw to cover the costs of everything they want to have implemented. This chest of financial plenty is in the possession of “the rich,” the “1 percent,” and “the privileged.” The government just needs to tax it more and more away. And don’t fear about tomorrow; it just magically replenishes itself so that the same rich and privileged can be taxed more and more each and every year with no diminishment of the money available to do all those progressive things.

And what is their end game? Well, as mentioned earlier, Joseph Stiglitz thinks that victory can be theirs if the Democrats only push hard left in the direction of those like Bernie Sanders and Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez. Where does that policy direction end? Listen to Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez, and they tell you it ends in “democratic socialism.”

Never was there more of an oxymoron. The entire history of socialism and socialist policies is that the more a society moves in that direction, the less democratic and less free it becomes. Regardless of the particular institutional form socialism may take on, it inevitably and inescapably contains within it greater and more comprehensive government control of more and more corners of people’s lives.

This is due to the fact that the more governments plan, regulate, and redistribute, the less freedom individuals have to plan and direct and successfully improve their own circumstances according to their own desires in peaceful and voluntary association and exchange with others in society. (See my articles “‘Democratic Socialism’ Means the Loss of Liberty” and “The Market Democracy versus Democratic Socialism.”)

Republicans and Democrats Are Variations on the Same Theme

What, then, separates the Republicans and the Democrats in terms of the economic policies they are offering the American people in this election? At the most fundamental level, in my view, they are merely different versions of the same interventionist-welfare state. Both call for preservation of the existing welfare-state “entitlement” programs. The Democrats wish to enlarge and expand them, while the Republicans wish to tinker around the edges so it may contain some additional personal choice, while figuring out how to pay for what is currently promised.

The Democrats wish to extend and intensify the degree and intrusiveness of the government regulatory state, with greater political influence and control over private business, industry, and investment in the service of the special interest groups that circle the Democratic Party. The Republicans maintain more of a free-enterprise rhetoric, while in the Age of Trump the system is more heavily geared toward being a mercantilist interventionist state of political nudging of the private sector combined with implicit government-business partnerships to make America great again.

In other words, they are both variations on the same collectivist theme. Lost in the shuffle is any real alternative that proposes a rebirth and reform of America in the direction of a truly free society grounded in individual liberty, real free markets, and constitutionally restrained government limited to the task of securing each person’s right to his life, liberty, and honestly acquired property. (See my articles “A Real Agenda for a Renewal of Free Market Liberalism” and “If Political Candidates Advocated Liberty.”)

For this reason, in spite of all the bristling rhetoric and insistence by both sides that if the other side wins it is the end of humankind as we know it, it is really a fight between two political parties and groups desiring to have control of the same governmental machinery for the purpose of planning and directing people’s economic and social affairs in one way rather than another.

Both will continue to use taxes to rob some Peters to benefit some other Pauls who are part of their coalition of supporters. They both will continue to use the regulatory state to command and control how people go about their personal, social, and economic affairs, only differing over their agendas due to differing political and ideological ideas guiding their actions. They both will maintain the welfare state, with its continuing growth and increasing costs. And both, in their own ways, based on their own worldviews, wish to use the government to influence the personal conduct and interactions of the citizenry.

For these reasons, this year’s congressional and related elections are not the turning point in American history that both those on the “left” and the “right” are trying to make it out to be. The voter may decide, all things considered, that one political party is better than the other, given everything going on in society, and decide to vote for it. But whichever party wins, and whoever the successful congressional candidates may be, the country is likely to continue down the road of more government intervention and less individual freedom of various types.

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Richard M. Ebeling

Dr. Richard M. Ebeling is the BB&T Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Free Enterprise Leadership at The Citadel, in Charleston, South Carolina.

Dr. Ebeling is the author of Austrian Economics and Public Policy: Restoring Freedom and Prosperity  (2016); Monetary Central Planning and the State (2015) as well as the author of Political Economy, Public Policy, and Monetary Economics: Ludwig von Mises and the Austrian Tradition (2010) and Austrian Economics and the Political Economy of Freedom (2003). And the editor of the three-volume, Selected Writing of Ludwig von Mises, published by Liberty Fund.

He is also the co-editor of When We Are Free (Northwood University Press, 2014), an anthology of essays devoted to the moral, political and economic principles of the free society, and co-author of the seven-volume, In Defense of Capitalism (Northwood University Press, 2010-2016).