Preelection Survey: What Is This Election About?
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We asked several Mises Institute scholars and writers to come together to discuss the themes running through the 2020 election race and the most important policy issues for the American presidency. Here’s what they had to say.
The 2020 US presidential election is the second referendum on the political elite’s welfare-warfare agenda. The political elite are nothing if not arrogant and, as such, greatly underestimated in 2016 the Trumpian appeal combined with the masses’ disdain for most things Washington.
Unfortunately for those who despise statism, corporatism, and its resultant destitution for the non–ruling class, these political insiders are taking fewer chances this election. A hatred-energized coalition of media interests, corporatists, government beneficiaries (including the education cartel), and, perhaps most dangerously, government “intelligence” agencies themselves are now working feverishly to both muzzle anti-establishment, populist views and disseminate their own self-serving representations—all to further insert themselves into the personal and economic lives of the citizenry at large.
Given the complete lack of any other justification to cast a vote for the morally and philosophically (yet somehow not financially) bankrupt Biden, his candidacy serves as a near-perfect proxy vote for establishment elitism. Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory could hardly have created a better control group candidate—one who, other than being the feeble, empty vessel chosen to carry the establishment’s water, embodies little more than all things government for the benefit of those connected closely to DC. I continue to believe voters distrustful of long-persisting, power-hungry professional politicians outnumber those voters favorable to such politicians (i.e., the real deplorables). If true, the defeat of Biden should depend only on the voter’s ability to see beyond the coalition’s attempts to portray this election as something other than a second referendum.
I am not enthusiastic about the plan of either candidate to promote economic growth. Both plans will massively increase total federal spending, which is the primary obstacle to economic growth.
With that in mind, I believe that Trump’s plan—although not completely articulated—would hinder economic growth far less than Biden’s would. Both Trump and Biden would spend over $1 trillion on infrastructure projects. Trump has not released the details of his plan, but of the $1.3 trillion that Biden plans to spend, only $50 billion would be used for repairing roads, bridges, and highways. The rest would be shoveled into boondoggle projects, including $400 billion for a new federal program for clean energy research and $100 billion to “modernize” schools.
In other areas, Trump’s plan is superior to Biden’s in minimizing political impediments to economic growth. Trump would extend his Tax Cuts and Jobs Act beyond its 2025 expiration date, while Biden promises to substantially increase the top personal income tax rate and the top corporate tax rate. Biden’s proposed rate increases are estimated to squeeze another $4 trillion in revenue out of taxpayers between 2021 and 2030. Trump proposes deep cuts in healthcare spending. Biden in contrast proposes a public health insurance option and lowering the eligibility age for Medicare from 65 to 60 years old. His campaign estimates this plan will cost $750 billion over a decade. Finally, in the area of climate change, Trump pulled the US out of the growth-crushing Paris Agreement, suspended draconian environmental rules on business, and plans to lease millions of acres of federally owned lands for drilling. Although Biden does not plan to enact the ultra-leftist Green New Deal, he does plan to rejoin the Paris Agreement and proposes to spend billions to achieve a 100 percent clean energy economy by 2050.
In sum, neither Trump nor Biden can be expected to make the deep cuts in federal expenditures and regulations that are so vitally necessary to promote robust economic growth driven by consumer choice and entrepreneurial initiative and foresight. However, Trump’s plan is much less likely than Biden’s to further suppress our anemic growth rate.
The next administration and Congress should urgently work to rein in the military-industrial-scientific complex. War is the health of the state, and few things have contributed more to all other domestic troubles than this ever-expanding Blob. As Blob bureaucrats like Alexander Vindman, "Anonymous" Miles Taylor, and the parade of other intelligence officials involved in the Trump-Russia collusion/impeachment fiasco make clear, these people will not limit their meddling to the affairs of other countries on the other side of the globe. Inevitably the war comes home. Only Trump has any chance of making headway on this issue. Unlike Biden, who is in the thrall of the neocons and liberal interventionists, Trump talks the talk, though he has difficulty getting the bureaucracy to walk the walk, partly because of his own foolish personnel decisions. There are signs of hope that a second Trump administration may make wiser staffing decisions, most notably, the recent nomination of my former boss William Ruger to be ambassador to Afghanistan. Additionally, Trump and the Republicans will likely have their sights set on knocking the intelligence community down a few notches as payback for the impeachment circus. Finally bringing troops home from Afghanistan and chastening the intelligence establishment would be urgently needed blows for American liberty.
Concerns about Big Tech, real and imagined, have flourished in the last few years, and both major parties have taken a tough stand against Google, Amazon, Apple, and the social media giants. On the antitrust and regulatory side, policymakers seem poised to return to the 1950s-era paradigm in which large market share, rather than narrowly defined illegal conduct, is cause for government action against private firms. Breaking up the big tech companies, forcing social media platforms to be “content neutral,” adding requirements for data privacy and portability, and similar moves will stifle innovation in one of the key sectors driving economic growth and improvements in the quality of life. The internet has flourished largely because it has been one of the least regulated sectors of the economy; reversing that policy will be a disaster.
While the Republican Senate and Trump’s administrative agencies have been harshly critical of Google, Facebook, and Twitter, threatening to break them, regulate them, or replace Section 230 with something worse, a Biden administration and Democratic Congress would be no better, and would likely pursue a more aggressive antitrust and regulatory policy throughout the economy. Freeing up entrepreneurs to innovate should be a top priority for the next administration, but I am not optimistic no matter what the outcome of the election.
Peter St. Onge
With so much to choose from it’s hard to pick just one top issue for the next president. Lockdowns is really the most topical in the near term. America needs a president who understands that voluntary responses rather than obligatory lockdowns mean that you can protect the vulnerable and the elderly without invoking depression levels of unemployment, bankruptcy, and collateral damage ranging from suicide to substance abuse to delayed medical care that could outweigh many times the direct death toll from covid.
The most important reform is to introduce sound money. The next president should introduce a pure gold standard and open up for monetary competition. This is the most important reform because it cuts off the government from the financing through inflation and artificially low interest rates. The size of government would have to shrink considerably. Moreover, it eliminates the distortions, bubbles, and crisis caused by our current monetary system.
None will support such a reform.
I am going for some low-hanging fruit and say they should reclassify cannabis, i.e., marijuana, from a Schedule I to a Schedule V drug or declassify it all together. Schedule I drugs are defined as drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse, like heroin or LSD. It is now the case that cannabis is recognized by doctors as having multiple medical uses and a low potential for abuse. This rescheduling can be done by the president, the attorney general, the Congress, and potentially the courts. Cannabis has been legalized by multiple states without calamity of any kind and enforcing the law is expensive and harmful to individuals, families, and communities. Biden claims he wants to decriminalize cannabis, but I believe a lame duck Trump administration would fully legalize it. Cannabis prohibition has been a travesty of justice and something that future historians will be puzzled with bewilderment.
Policy-wise, the most important reform the next president and Congress should make is to expand school choice and relinquish as much control over the education system as possible. The reason this is so important is because many of the other problems in the US stem from the fact that a large enough proportion of the voting public has been taught that government is the solution, and not the cause or aggravator, of those problems. If, for example, we learn as kids that FDR and his New Deal got the US out of the Great Depression, then we will likely not question the government when it responds to crises (real, exaggerated, or imagined) with new spending and regulation. School choice and privatization of schooling would certainly give way to more ideologically diverse curricula, such that more students will learn the historical perspective, economic principles, and critical thinking required to question the government and establishment media. Donald Trump has made expanding school choice a significant part of his 2020 campaign, and his secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, has also made initial strides in reducing the federal government's involvement in education. Joe Biden has explicitly rejected the school choice plans of Trump and DeVos. Biden's plan is to increase funding for public schools and limit school choice.
In my judgment, ending the lockdowns related to covid-19 is the single most important thing to do. However, those coercive policies are not being applied at the federal level. Since the question pertains to the president and Congress, I think the single most important item would be to abolish the Federal Reserve. All of the US federal government's horrible invasions of liberty—both domestic and abroad—would be sharply curtailed if the Congress had to directly tax or borrow the money “honestly” without the Fed waiting in the wings to electronically create new money with which to monetize Uncle Sam's debt.
I think one of the most important policy battles we are going to see is maintaining what degree of federalism still exists in DC. Covid has exacerbated revenue shortfalls for the most profligate and poorly run states, and the Democratic Party has continually sought to make blue state bailouts a part of covid recovery packages. This simply is making well-run red states pay for really bad state policy.
Similarly, a politically viable—and significant—reform for a variety of government programs can exist by decentralizing much of the social safety programs. For example, breaking up the numerous healthcare-related policies and allowing states to develop their own programs with block grants would place the management of these programs on states rather than centralized power. Similarly, Donald Trump has spent significant time discussing transforming education spending to be child rather than school focused, highlighting the work of Dr. Corey DeAngelis. These would be significant steps forward.
If I were made king for a day, I would prefer to burn the welfare-warfare state entirely and the Fed down with it. Unfortunately, I don't see any political party seriously engaging in something as basic as Ron Paul's competing currency bill. I do think we could see a major attempt to nationalize the major mistakes of our worst states, and that is something that I think can be stopped with a Donald Trump presidency.
According to Zeke Emmanuel, an adviser to Joe Biden on covid-19, “We cannot return to normal until there’s a vaccine. Conferences, concerts, sporting events, religious services, dinner in a restaurant, none of that will resume until we find a vaccine, a treatment, or a cure….We need to prepare ourselves for this to last 18 months or so and for the toll that it will take. We need to develop a long-term solution based on those facts. It has to account for what we are losing while this fight goes on, things like schooling and income and contact with our friends and extended family.” Is this what the American people want, or do we need instead to end restrictions now and get back to our normal lives? I think this is the single most important issue in the election.
If my hero Ron Paul were president, I think the first thing he’d do is bring ALL the troops home. I think the second thing he’d do is issue a full pardon to all nonviolent victimless criminals (sex, drugs, gambling between consenting adults, plus whistle-blowing, etc.). I think the third thing he’d do, assuming in all these cases he had the power to do so, is eliminate the Fed.
Why these reforms? In order to promote liberty.
Which 2020 presidential candidate is most likely to institute these reforms?
I’d put them in this order:
- Jo Jorgenson
- Donald Trump
- Joe Biden
None of these people are Ron Paul, or even Rand Paul. None will do all three. But I would rank the likelihood in that order.
Here are some more reforms I have no doubt Ron Paul (my litmus test for excellence in a politician) would undertake: Fourth, a unilateral declaration of free trade with ALL nations. Fifth, radically reduce taxes AND subsidies. Sixth, radically reduce government regulations.
Donald Trump has some good instincts. He has promoted peace in the Middle East. He’s tried to bring at least some troops home, and then got stomped on for doing so by the swamp creatures. He has moderately reduced taxes and regulations. Vis-à-vis Joe Biden, I enthusiastically support the Donald.
A Joe Biden victory would show that legacy and social media companies wield a stronger influence on politics than ever before. A Donald Trump win would mean that the Left's narrative doesn't stick, despite the lengths it goes to make it the nation's dogma.
Whatever happens, support for Trump will continue, and he will retain influence if he consistently opposes the lockdowners and supports those opening the country.
If you watch too much television, you probably think the 2020 presidential election is as much about personality as it is about felt policy. Don't forget that presidential elections have decades-long implications, in particular for the federal courts. The US Senate has confirmed well over 200 of President Trump's nominees to the federal bench. The nominations of Justices Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Barrett are only a small piece of a much bigger picture. President Trump's judicial selections now sit not only as Article I judges on the US Court of Federal Claims and the US Tax Court, among others, but also as Article III judges on district and circuit courts across the country. Make no mistake: few of these judges are philosophically libertarian, and I doubt more than three (I'm being generous) could explain the core teachings of the Austrian school of economics. Their commitment to originalism, however, and their mode of judging and guiding beliefs restrain them from growing government in important areas. Don't get me wrong: there is much more at stake in this election than just the federal judiciary (imagine if Jane Sanders or Janet Napolitano were to replace Betsy DeVos as the head of the Department of Education!), but because federal judges serve life tenure, the future of the federal courts should suffice to convince those who are, so to speak, “on the fence” in swing states to climb down and vote, however grudgingly.
Can any libertarian with a modicum of principle (or intelligence) say that a Biden-Harris White House will lead to a smaller increase in the size, scope, and power of government than Trump-Pence? Truly, it is a case of choosing between the lesser of two evils—but the choice is very clear. The future is by no means guaranteed under Trump, but we all know what is coming with Joe Biden—another Progressive Era!
This vote is not about policy or ideology, it is about a nasty cultural war engendered by the relentless politicization of everything. Covid lockdowns in an election year only intensified the animosity, as the relatively nonpolitical or apolitical spheres of life—family, church, sports, travel, movies, bars, restaurants—receded in importance. Millions of American became stuck at home, “living” mostly online and seething at their political opponents. This is clearly an unhealthy political climate, and an embarrassing one.
Can electing or reelecting a president help? Doubtful. The imperial presidency of the twentieth century effectively bypassed Congress, creating a managerial federal superstate. Now that superstate has a life of its own, independent of or even actively undermining its own putative boss. Agencies like the CDC, FBI, CIA, and NSA have become wholly unaccountable and frighteningly powerful minigovernments unto themselves, while lawmakers flail impotently.
So each political “side” lives in fear of the whole apparatus, and with good reason. Wars, entitlements, deficits, debt, and an expansionary Fed all add up to one conclusion: it's too late for “public policy.” So as difficult as it may be, the only meaningful reform a president could initiate would involve the serious devolution of federal power to states and cities. Subsidiarity, rather than ideology, appears the only way forward in a country with 330 million people of wildly divergent views and interests.
Trump has some good decentralist instincts in his approach to covid, allowing governors to lead with different approaches. He wanted to get out, at least partially, of our intractable Middle East wars. He wanted to drain the Swamp. He understands business, to a degree. But he lacks focus and is susceptible to flattery—which is how DC barnacles like John Bolton ended up in his administration. Yet unlike Biden, he has some sympathy for the ideal of an America not entirely run by DC. Should Trump win, we can only hope the deep blue states begin to agree.