“Friedman Friday” Milton Friedman: “If taxes are raised in order to keep down the deficit, the result is likely to be a higher norm for government spending” (Charlie Rose interview pt 4)


| Jul 22, 2011 | 0 comments

The on-going debate over raising the debt ceiling has focused on many areas of disagreement between Democrats and Republicans but none bigger than the Republican determination not to raise taxes.  Many pundits credit this to the political power of Grover Norquist and his Americans for Tax Reform who have spent years collecting “No Tax Increase” pledges from Republican candidates.  Others attribute Republican intransigence on taxes to a near religious belief in supply side economics, a school of thought founded by economist Arthur Laffer and journalist Jude Wanniski in the late 1970s.

The true seeds of this attitude toward tax increases, in my view, actually go back farther and can be traced to an even nobler pedigree.  The real inspiration for this conviction comes from the late Nobel prize-winning economist, Milton Friedman.  It is only by understanding Friedman’s reasoning and his values that one can fully understand why Republican refuse to see spending cuts and tax increases as simply two sides of the same budget-balancing coin.

This was not always the Republican, or even the conservative, position.  During the 1950s, it was Democrats who advocated tax cuts to stimulate the economy and President Eisenhower who insisted “we can never justify going further into debt to give ourselves a tax cut at the expense of our children.”

In 1964, the eventual Republican nominee for president, Senator Barry Goldwater, voted against the so-called Kennedy tax cuts (actually passed after Kennedy’s assassination the previous year) because he was convinced the resulting deficits would be inflationary.  Even after losing the presidential election to President Lyndon Johnson in a landslide later that year, Goldwater predicted a Republican comeback, telling U.S. News & World Report that a no-win war in Vietnam and high inflation would prompt a backlash against the Democrats two years later (he was right on both counts).

So if Eisenhower and Goldwater represented Republican orthodoxy in the 1950s and ‘60s, what happened?  In large part, it was an intellectual revolution in conservative/libertarian thought prompted by economist Milton Friedman.  While Friedman rejected the simplistic Keynesian (and later supply-side) notion that tax cuts automatically stimulate the economy, he believed that higher taxes were bad because they led to more and bigger government, which he was convinced at best led to waste and at worse to greater government control over our economy, our lives and our freedoms.

In 1967, three year’s after the Kennedy tax cuts, the Johnson Administration was already running huge deficits thanks to the a combination of Great Society social programs and the Vietnam War.  Writing in his regular Newsweek column on August 7, 1967, Friedman expresseded his concern that this would soon lead to higher taxes, using an analysis that would become familiar to his readers over the years:

“.If we adopt such programs, does not fiscal responsibility at least call for imposing taxes to pay for them?  The answer is that postwar experience has demonstrated two things. First, that Congress will spend whatever the tax system will raise—plus a little (and recently, a lot) more.  Second, that, surprising as it seems, it has proved difficult to get taxes down once they are raised.  The special interests created by government spending have proved more potent than the general interest in tax reduction.

“If taxes are raised in order to keep down the deficit, the result is likely to be a higher norm for government spending. Deficits will again mount and the process will be repeated.”

Sure enough, a year later a 10% income tax surcharge was enacted by Congress to cut the deficit and fight inflation.  His prediction having been confirmed, Friedman returned to the subject in another Newsweek column dated July 15, 1968.  He now described a familiar pattern of how Democrats used the traditional view of fiscal conservatism to convince Republicans to help pay for the Democrats’ own profligate spending:

“The standard scenario has been that the Democrats—in the name of the New Deal, the Fair Deal, or the Great Society—push through large spending programs . . . generally against the opposition of the Republican leadership.  The spending programs not only absorb the increased tax yield generated by the ‘fiscal drag,’ they go farther and produce deficits.

“The Democrats then appeal to the Republicans’ sense of fiscal responsibility to refrain from cutting tax rates or, as in this case, to raise them.  The Republicans cooperate, thereby establishing a new higher revenue base for further spending.  The Democrats get the ‘credit’ for the spending; the Republicans, the ‘blame’ for the taxes; and you and I pay the bill.”

Fast forward seven years, when Republican President Gerald Ford was proposing a tax cut to stimulate the economy during a brief recession.  As an economist who believed monetary, not fiscal, policy was the best way to keep the economy on a stable path to growth, Friedman did not believe the proposed tax cut would have its intended stimulatory effect.  He explained why in another Newseek column on July 15, 1975 but went on to say:

“Yet I must confess that I favor tax cuts—not as a cure for recession but for a very different reason.  Our basic long-term need is to stop the explosive growth in government spending.  I am persuaded that the only effective way to do so is by cutting taxes—at any time for any excuse in any way.

“The reason is that government will spend whatever the tax system raises plus a good deal more—but not an indefinite amount more.  The most effective way to force each of us to economize is to reduce our income.  The restraint is less rigid on government, but it is there and seems to be the only one we have.

“So hail the tax cut—but let’s do it for the right reason.”

Another six years went by and now it was the newly-elected president, Ronald Reagan, who was proposing a large, multi-year tax cut to get the economy moving. At the time, he was also proposing off-setting spending cuts (which we all know didn’t happen).  Friedman wrote yet another Newsweek column dated July 27, 1981, refuting objections to the plan by liberal economists while also discounting many of the claims of supply-siders in the Reagan Administration.  Friedman still supported the tax cuts, of course, and explained why liberals were suddenly worried about deficits:

“The analysis so far treats government spending and taxes as if they were two independent entities.  They clearly are not.  We know full well that Congress will spend every penny—and more—that is yielded by taxes.  A cut in taxes will mean a cut in government spending.  And there is no other way to get a cut in spending.

“That is the real reason why the big spenders and the big inflationists of the past have suddenly been converted to fiscal conservatism and to preaching the virtues of fighting inflation.  They know that a multi-year tax cut will force multi-year spending reductions.  They hope that a one-year tax cut will quiet public agitation and allow them to revert next year to their high-spending ways.”

Taken as a whole, these excerpts from columns written for a popular magazine by a Nobel laureate economist between 1967 and 1981—44 to 30 years ago—spell out precisely the philosophy that today motivates many Republicans in and out of Congress to firmly oppose any tax increase as part of a deficit reduction or budget-balancing plan proposed by Democrats.

Like Milton Friedman, they are firmly convinced that any taxes they raise will ultimately result in increased government spending.  They believe government spending necessarily translates into more and bigger government.  They believe the federal government is already too big, threatening not just the health of the economy but their freedom and way of life as well.

One can argue with Friedman’s assumptions as well as the conclusions he draws from them.  But until those on the other side—including the President, Democratic congressional leaders and the media—understand the reasoning and motivations behind the anti-tax sentiments of Republicans from Capitol Hill to the Tea Party activists, it’s hard to imagine anything more than a temporary truce in the battle being waged over the budget.

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