Editor’s note: While the larger point of the post is a good topic for debate, Fortenberry was a bad example. According to the scorecards released by the Club for Growth and FreedomWorks, Fortenberry hasn’t been a friend to the taxpayer on fiscal issues. Thanks to Matt Hoskins for bringing this to our attention.
Author’s note: Yes, kudos to Matt Hoskins. I’ve added an update below.
Last week, Rod Dreher at the American Conservative magazine wrote about John Fortenberry, a Republican congresscritter from Nebraska who is considering a run for the seat of retiring Republican Senator Mike Johanns. What has Dreher annoyed —understandably — is that the Senate Conservatives Fund has come out against Fortenberry. Why? Because Fortenberry is “too liberal” on taxes:
“We can already say that we won’t be able to support Congressman Fortenberry if he runs. His record on spending, debt, and taxes in the House is just too liberal. Republicans in Nebraska deserve better,” said Senate Conservatives Fund Executive Director Matt Hoskins. SCF, which was started by conservative Jim DeMint and involved itself in the 2012 Nebraska Senate GOP primary, is looking to identify a candidate it can get behind, Hoskins added.
Dreher argues that’s completely bunk. In an interview with the Congressman last year, he wrote:
Last year, Fortenberry, who holds an undergraduate degree in economics and master’s degrees in public policy and theology, raised eyebrows by refusing to renew his commitment to the Americans for Tax Reform pledge never to vote for a tax increase. By declining to bow towards ATR president Grover Norquist, a pro forma ritual for Republican lawmakers, Fortenberry signaled a willingness to rethink the right’s tax orthodoxy in light of changing times.
Dreher goes on to blast the SCF and other conservatives for attacking Fortenberry on taxes:
Read the entire interview and tell me that this staunchly Catholic Republican is not a conservative. The real problem the DeMintors have with him is that he wouldn’t sign Norquist’s pledge, and he thinks the GOP needs to rethink its tax policy in light of current realities, versus sticking with an ideological orthodoxy that is arguably plutocratic, not conservative. They may also oppose him because he agreed to the fiscal cliff deal — he explained his reasons for voting for it here — and because he once said it was irresponsible to talk about impeaching Obama.
If conservative fundraising activists reject out of hand a candidate like Jeff Fortenberry — with an 86 percent lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union — on grounds that he’s too liberal on economic issues, who on earth will they accept? Do they even care about winning elections?
There’s a lot in the piece about Catholic conservatives, which is where Dreher thinks a lot of this is going (at least, from what I can see) but I want to focus on the tax portion of this equation. And that’s to say this: it’s time Republicans and movement conservatives pivot away from taxes.
I certainly don’t want to say that folks should completely drop the fight on taxes. The capital gains tax and the death tax (aka the “estate” tax) are horribly odious taxes that should be eliminated. The corporate income tax is higher than any other nation in the OECD and needs to be brought back in line. And I like what Grover Norquist and ATR are doing to fight to good fight.
But here’s the problem: taxes have only a marginal effect on the economy and individual liberty. As much as it stinks to give some of your money to the taxman every year, you can still live with and get around taxes. Meanwhile, there are many other liberty-robbing government programs out there that are far, far worse. Be honest with yourself, what takes away more of your liberty and freedom, domestic spying, drone strikes, threats of indefinite detention, the TSA, and the War on Drugs….or a 23% tax rate?
Liberals know this. They know the numbers are on their side. They can look to the past and show when we had a top tax bracket of 70% and say “See! We had higher taxes in the past and we were fine! Why can’t we raise taxes now?” Now, you can say “Well, there were other factors involved, namely the fact that every other country had been flattened after World War II, business was booming…” etc. etc. etc. But that doesn’t help the conservative argument, it just shows that taxes aren’t everything and that there are ways around them.
Worse, Democrats and liberals are already hard at work removing that ammunition from the conservative movement’s armory. Remember that ridiculously high corporate income tax rate? Guess what: Obama wants to reduce it from 35% down to 28%, which would be between Norway and Australia. So you can’t really fight on that front; it would be wasted resources.
What we need to be focusing on is spending—spending and regulations. We need to focus what is actually holding the economy back and hurting people. We here at United Liberty document hundreds of programs that should not exist. Those programs cost money. Eliminating them would simultaneously cut the budget and drastically increase the liberty Americans have today. Programs like the EPA, Department of Homeland Security, the drone war, the Drug War, etc. etc. and for emphasis, etcera. We also need to cut back economic regulations, which according to the Competitive Enterprise Institute is costing the economy roughly $1.7 trillion in compliance costs. That’s nearly $2 trillion we could be spending on payroll and hiring more workers, but which is instead wasted on making sure we dot our i’s and cross our t’s to please some government pencil pusher. That’s really hurting people out there.
More importantly, spending itself is the greatest tax of all, as Milton Friedman, the great libertarian economist, said:
Keep your eye on one thing and one thing only: how much government is spending, because that’s the true tax … If you’re not paying for it in the form of explicit taxes, you’re paying for it indirectly in the form of inflation or in the form of borrowing. The thing you should keep your eye on is what government spends, and the real problem is to hold down government spending as a fraction of our income, and if you do that, you can stop worrying about the debt.
Considering conservatives are already up in arms over spending cuts in the sequester, they’re already desiring to raise taxes on all of you. That’s a pretty damn big fail.
While we should hold the line, for now, on tax increases, fighting for tax cuts is a useless gesture. Until and unless we get government spending back in line, and if we can, hopefully restore some sanity to America’s monetary policy, taxes are going to be a useless sideshow. They’re just not as important as other factors we can—and should—be pursuing.
It’s time to ignore taxes, and stop punishing people like Rep. Fortenberry who dared step away from the tax pledge. It’s time to start focusing on spending, and the real problems that America faces.
UPDATE: In a funny way, though, this story still comes around to knock Fortenberry. As my editor has noted, Fortenberry doesn’t exactly have a stellar record on spending either. As Matt Hoskins put in the comments below, he voted to give money to the Lobster Institute, of all places. He has a 61% lifetime record from Club for Growth, and a 68% score from FreedomWorks. Not exactly great on spending. So then, when Fortenberry complains about high taxes and how the system is “plutocratic,” I have to ask: “Then why keep spending, when spending is taxing?”
So, mea culpa. I was focusing on the larger message I was trying to get across and not the details of the springboard, which is where I goofed. I hope that doesn’t terribly detract from the overall message. Conservatives really do need to be focusing more on spending than taxation, but regrettably, Fortenberry doesn’t focus on either very well. That is unfortunate. It’s exactly people like Fortenberry who need to go.