The Partisan Trap

by Russ Roberts on December 28, 2007

in Politics

In reaction to my recent sunny commentary at NPR, a number of NPR listeners have let me know that things are not so good for everyone in the US and that this condition began with the free market policies of the Reagan administration and continue with the Bush administration.

Of course, both Reagan and Bush the younger talked and talk a lot about the power of markets. They claim to believe in markets. But it isn’t the reality. And the Democrats talk about how markets hurt people and how the government must intervene, especially to help the little guy.

But there is little difference between Republican and Democratic Presidents in what they actually do. In what they say? Sure. Both Reagan and Bush talk about individual responsibility and the market blah blah blah. Bill Clinton talked more about feeling people’s pain and the downtrodden blah blah blah. Similarly, in the current presidential campaign, there are stark rhetorical differences between say Giuliani and Romney on the one hand and Obama and Clinton on the other.

But will the actual results be different? Will Hillary double the minimum wage? Change our health care system to be more socialized? Eliminate corporate welfare? Will Giuliani make the health care system less socialized? Eliminate the minimum wage? Get rid of farm subsidies? Stop spending federal money on education?

Most of it is talk and it’s not just because change is hard to achieve. It’s because they really don’t want change. Did Bill Clinton get rid of income inequality? Dent it? The share of income going to the top 1% rose throughout most of the Clinton administration. Was it his policies? The steady rise in the share of income going to the top 1% started rising in 1976. Was it Carter’s doing?

Was Bush or Reagan a hard core free trader in practice? Nope. They used protectionism when it was politically expedient. Just like Bill Clinton signed welfare reform and NAFTA and then chose not to enforce the truck provision of NAFTA because the Teamsters didn’t like it.

Government gets bigger under both Republicans and Democrats. What they spend money on is a little different, yes. But to hate George Bush for being a free market guy is to miss what is really going on. And to hate Hillary because she doesn’t understand the power of markets and to love, say, Mitt Romney, is to misunderstand both of them. They use rhetoric to dupe you. Don’t be duped. Be clear-eyed, not starry-eyed about the game they play.

That’s not to say there aren’t differences between the candidates.

That’s not to say there aren’t differences between the candidates.

Yes, there are differences. But they are so much smaller than our passions pretend.

And to see the differences as my good guys against their bad guys is to be duped by the rhetoric. Don’t be duped.


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