(image from scholastic.com, used from Fair Use, and to give you a pleasant side of both candidates!)
In the first part of this three part series on the types of liberty, I discussed the two broad categories of negative and positive liberty. In the second part, I showed how the two major U.S. political parties tend to fall with respect to these two versions of liberty. In this final installment, I will apply all of this to the current 2016 Presidential Election, as a way of helping people understand the options.
Before I break down Clinton and Trump, I want to address the two main alternative candidates this year: Gary Johnson and Jill Stein. I’ll be honest. I’m not a fan of either candidate for reasons that go beyond their parties’ platforms. In my opinion, neither is remotely qualified for the job of President. They have no political experience at all, and running companies or being a medical doctor is in no way related to what happens in politics. I understand why some people might want an outsider to come in and shake up the system, but doing this from the top down, by electing an unqualified POTUS, is a big mistake. Neither party has any foothold in Congress, or even state level political entities. That means none of their proposals can actually happen. If either party is serious about changing U.S. politics, they should get involved in local elections first, then state, and then show that they are elements for real, substantive changes. I personally think that both candidates are benefiting from a general cynicism about the two major political parties, and I understand that cynicism. But I don’t think people should let it get in the way of the practical realities that neither Johnson nor Stein can do any of the things they have promised. Nor are their plans well considered.
But this article isn’t about Third Party candidates. If you want to know my thoughts about them, ask, and I will write such an article, or tell you directly.
So, let’s turn to Clinton and Trump. In a very general sense, these candidates will line up with the approaches to liberty that I showed in the previous article. As a Democrat, Clinton will tend to support negative liberty approaches to social/moral issues, allowing people to pursue their own beliefs, while pushing for positive liberty by increasing social safety nets for Americans. As a Republican (loosely), Trump will tend to support negative liberty on economic issues, while trying to increase the feeling of safety in America through stronger immigration laws and policing powers, which is loosely positive liberty. As usual, however, the devil is in the details.
Let’s start with Clinton and look at a few proposals she has made. Clinton’s plan to help solve the growing deficit is to increase taxes on the wealthiest Americans to increase government revenue. According to the Tax Foundation (which is not at all a liberal organization), Clinton’s plan would increase taxes on the wealthiest Americans, including estate taxes (for estates worth over $1billion). All things being equal, this would lead to $1.4 trillion in government revenue over a ten-year period. Of course, things are not always equal, so the Tax Foundation accounted for the fact that increasing taxes on the wealthy could lower the GDP a bit. Once that is accounted for, the revenues are closer to $663 billion, which is still a sizable amount. There are many, unpredictable things that could increase or decrease that number in reality, but this is the closet prediction we are likely to get.
This increased revenue would presumably be used to increase social safety nets, or perhaps pay for the college plan I shall discuss next. Both would be increases in positive liberty for some Americans. However, even Clinton should admit that increasing these taxes will result in lower negative liberty for the people being taxed more. They are now forced to give up more of their money to the government, which means they are not free to spend that money. Any time government gets involved in trying to increase positive liberties, there are most likely going to be some costs in negative liberties. In this particular case, though, that cost only affects a very small number of Americans. Most Americans will see their taxes stay about the same, or lower slightly.
Clinton’s tax plan also increases various deductions (or adds credits) for people with children, including child care expenses. This should result in more negative liberties for those people to spend that money as they wish, rather than having it tied up in childcare. The estate tax exemption will be lowered a bit for individuals and couples, which will affect estates worth $3.5 million for individuals or $7 million for couples, resulting in a loss of negative liberty for such estates to distribute their wealth as they see fit. However, small businesses will see increased deductions and an expansion of ACA benefits, which will increase their negative liberty to spend funds and perhaps their positive liberty to provide healthcare for employees.
One thing that Clinton plans to do with the increased revenues is provide various support programs for people who need help going to college. Her plan does not go as far as Bernie Sanders’s plan to simply make college free, but that plan would have radically changed higher education in the U.S. in unforeseen ways. It also faced an almost impossible uphill battle in Congress. Clinton’s plan may face similar hurdles, but is more layered and nuance. You can view her plan on her website, but in general it is an attempt to use the tax plan above to provide positive liberty for more people to go to college.
Ok, let’s turn to Trump’s tax plan, again using the Tax Foundation website. Trump’s plan aims to stimulate the economy by reducing taxes, especially on the wealthy and corporations. The theory here, which is often called trickle-down economics, is that when wealthier individuals and the corporations they run pay less in taxes, they reinvest the money saved back into the economy. This, in turn grows the economy, which helps everyone, and can (in some cases) increase tax revenues through the greater GDP. Unfortunately, Trump’s plan will lead to a loss of revenue to the government of around $5 trillion, give or take a trillion. That’s if everything stayed equal, but as I noted above, things are not equal. His plan could increase GDP. Once that’s taken into account, the loss of revenues is between $2.6 and $3.9 trillion dollars. A reminder that the Tax Foundation is not favoring Clinton here. It’s just analyzing the plans as they are presented. The top 1% of Americans will see a 10% or more growth in their income.
As noted above, more income in pocket means more negative liberty spend your money as you wish. Arguably, it also means more positive freedoms, as those with more income can accomplish more. However, this is not the same as positive liberty, which is about government aiding people in achieving goals. In fact, Trump’s plan will lower tax revenues, which means government spending must be cut in order to avoid raising the deficit even more. Those cuts are likely to go to safety net spending, though he could reduce military spending to achieve the needed cuts. In any case, cutting government spending lowers positive liberty by definition, since the government can no longer provide the services that rely on that income. Whether that is a good or bad thing depends on your views on government.
Trump has argued that his plan will increase American jobs, which would be a big benefit, if true. You can read about this claim, and its skeptics in this PBS article. Trump has also said that he plans to eliminate some of the international trade deals that have been created in the last couple of decades, again in order to boost American businesses. Whether this will work depends on your view of the current global economy. Can the easy flow of international goods be constrained at this point in history? I’m personally skeptical that it could, or even that it should. However, I absolutely sympathize with Trump’s view that American companies are finding it hard to compete with the lower labor costs found in other countries. Whether a President can solve that problem through tariffs, embargoes, taxes, or whatever other methods Trump might intend to use (he’s often secretive about the specifics of his plans) is dubious, in my opinion. However, if he did pull this off, it would be an increase in job opportunities for Americans, which is an increase in positive liberties. Government policies would then be aiding Americans in finding meaningful work. I just don’t think it will work.
At this point, my own biases are probably pretty clear, but I want to note that I do not inherently disagree with the Republican view of economics through deregulation. Historically, we have good evidence that trickle-down economics doesn’t work, but I am sympathetic to the view, first posited by Adam Smith, that government interference in the economy often has unforeseen negative results. I’m skeptical because I don’t think Trump has ever read Smith, or any other economist, for that matter. I’m skeptical because I don’t think he is even listening to the GOP anymore, or his advisers, or anyone else. I’m skeptical because as far as I can tell, Trump has made a career off of false promises and cheating other people out of their money.
As a result, this particular entry in my three-part series is probably off the rails. I’ve tried to be balanced between the two candidates on these liberty issues, but I would find it a lot easier to be balanced if I were writing about Romney or McCain as the GOP candidate, because those candidates had viable plans that were grounded in reality. I might not have agreed with all of their plans (I don’t agree with all of Clinton’s, either), but I understood them. I don’t understand Trump’s plan (go to his website, and figure it out for yourself), and neither does the Tax Foundation, as far as I can tell. It’s baffling.