Tax Foundation on Presidential Election Rhetoric Twenty-Eight Years Ago: This Sounds Familiar

October 17, 2008

This following essay is from the October 1980 issue of Tax Features (PDF here). October 1980—a month before the Reagan vs. Carter election—seems like a very long time ago, but this essay could have been written today. Sadly, we have a feeling it will still be relevant 28 years from now.

Browse the Tax Foundation archives for more reminders of tax policy trends from past election years. The archives can be sorted by date or by topic.

Beyond the Ballot Box

By Robert C. Brown, Tax Foundation Executive Vice President

It's that time of year, and the exaggerated rhetoric and campaign hoopla are something that we Americans cherish just as much as we sometimes cherish throwing pop bottles at the umpires at the ballgame. It's something non-Americans never really understand.

At the Tax Foundation, we must walk a more restrained path, ever mindful that the credibility of an organization like the Foundation is always on the line. For us to take such a freewheeling approach would hamper our effectiveness. It might take people's minds off the real issues at stake.

A lot of lip service has been paid this past year to restraining government spending, balancing the budget, enacting a constitutional amendment to require a balanced budget or limiting Federal spending to a percentage of the nation's total income or output.

These kinds of issues have been in the public policy debates all year long. And they are going to be around for at least another congressional session.

There is a deep-seated recognition today from many quarters that our tax and fiscal policy is on the wrong track, that we really need to get on with restoring the capital stock of this country, that we can't continue to tax it away or else we'll simply get to the point where there isn't anything left to tax.

I believe it was J. S. Mill who pointed out that the interest of government is to tax heavily, that of the community is to be as little taxed as the necessary expenses of the government permit. In a nutshell, that's still the big issue. The interest of the government is to tax heavily, to provide for all of the programs that the government believes the people should be exposed to. But the people who have to pay the taxes are not always willing to continue to pay for the other guy's pet programs. Another observation of Mill's is this: The very principle of constitutional government requires it to be assumed that political power will be abused to promote the particular purposes of those who hold power, not because this always happens but because such is the natural tendency of things. Guarding against this tendency is the special use of free institutions.

Behind all the rhetoric and all the election hoopla, that is still one of the major issues confronting our nation this fall, regardless of who is elected on November 4. The Tax Foundation's contribution to the evolution of public policy is to provide the economic and fiscal data for that debate in an objective fashion. It is very frustrating to come from such an organization and, in dealing with the political elements of government, to see that data misused, distorted for short-term gain, or ignored-frustrating, but also greatly challenging.

In my opinion, unless we meet the challenge and continue to keep these basic issues on the front burner, no matter who wins in November, we will all end up losers.


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