The American political system is bound up in a strange form of bipartisanship. Both major parties are supporting stronger government in all spheres. To be sure, there are differences of degree—the rate at which Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale want to increase military spending and the extent to which they want to intervene in the economy. But they disagree little over the fundamental direction to take.
And yet, the choice between them is not meaningless. The Republican Party, or at least Ronald Reagan, pays lip service to the free market; in contrast, the Democrats openly pursue a goal of government economic planning. On foreign policy, Walter Mondale at least recognizes the danger of war in Central America. The Reagan administration, if anything, seems eager to deploy more troops overseas.
The candidates and parties diverge on other issues, as well—civil liberties, immigration, and the like—but the questions of a domestic free market and world peace will likely dominate this fall's election. And that's probably the way it should be, since the answers of the winner could very well chart our nation's course for the next generation.
Alas, the choice is not an easy one. Though on individual issues there are good people in each party, the overall package offered by both Democrats and Republicans is dismal. Bluntly put, the Republicans stand for a free-enterprise economy while preparing for war. The Democrats pledge to give us peace abroad but crypto-socialism at home.
Do we risk military conflict? Or accept the ruination of the economy?
If you're interested in your economic future, vote Republican. For one thing, Ronald Reagan has reduced the overall tax burden on Americans; had his 1981 tax cut not been enacted, Americans would be nearly one and one-half trillion dollars poorer between 1981 and 1989. Even after four successive Reagan tax hikes, we are still better off, especially since indexing of personal income-tax rates permanently protects taxpayers at all income levels from inflation-induced "bracket creep." Walter Mondale, in contrast, wants to postpone indexing as part of his campaign of envy.
The Republicans also offer us a somewhat freer international market. Not a free market, mind you—Reagan has raised barriers to imports of everything from sugar to textiles to autos. But he has firmly opposed perhaps the most destructive protectionist legislation since the Smoot-Hawley Tariff of 1930, the so-called Domestic Content Bill. The Congressional Budget Office figures the bill could trigger a trade war costing America 220,000 jobs. In contrast, Mondale calculates that many jobs as a small price to pay for the support of organized labor.
Even more important, despite its lamentable desire to meddle with the economy, the party of Lincoln apparently recognizes the importance of private economic decisionmaking. The Democrats do not. In the past always ready to spend, tax, and regulate on a grand scale, they now want to control the entire economy. A gaggle of Democratic politicos is pushing central economic planning under the rubric of "industrial policy." Their schemes vary, but all threaten us with economic disaster.
The economy, however, is not the only issue. Perhaps the only thing that could affect us more profoundly than permanent economic decline would be a war. And here the Democrats offer a more positive future than do the Republicans.
Mondale's party is not united, with left neoisolationists and cold war liberals battling for control. But at least the Democrats, in the main, abjure the arms race and want to spend a little less on the military than does Reagan, who has upped real defense outlays by more than 30 percent since 1980.
Moreover, Mondale has opposed Reagan's preparations for war in Central America. Mondale does want to keep some forces in Honduras—apparently Lyndon Johnson's heirs cannot conceive of a region without a US military presence—but he seems unlikely to order an invasion of Nicaragua. (And none of his supporters are known to drive around Washington with "Nicaragua Next" bumper stickers on their cars.) Mondale has played the role of hawk in the Middle East and elsewhere, but his rhetoric still does not match the tone of Reagan's speeches over the years.
Finally, a few Democrats, such as Jesse Jackson, have raised the issue of America's expansive and expensive global commitments, like NATO, which alone accounts for some 40 percent of the US military budget. In contrast, no leading Republicans appear ready to raise the banner of Old Right statesmen like Robert Taft, who believed America should not be defending half from the other half.
So, how to vote? We should cast our ballot for a market economic system, because it is both moral and efficient. Moral because it embodies the right of individuals to reap the rewards of their own efforts; efficient because it yields the greatest benefits for all of us. So forget Walter Mondale, who wants to plan free enterprise into oblivion.
However, we should also vote for peace. An invasion of Nicaragua, for instance, would turn this nation into an outlaw aggressor and could lead to a Soviet-American confrontation. Such foreign adventurism outweighs the little economic freedom that Reagan might leave us. Thus, he's no alternative.
Two centuries ago this country was formed amid both a military and a philosophical revolution. The armed conflict was essentially won in 1781, when the British surrendered at Yorktown. But that victory would not have been possible without an ideological triumph of a century earlier, when the British people restricted the power of the Crown. They led the Europeans in adopting the classical liberal philosophy of constitutional restraints on government, the end of mercantilism, and opposition to imperialist wars. Unfortunately, we've lost that heritage, with both major parties now committed to a growing government.
The American people again deserve a real choice, an opportunity to vote both for peace and for economic freedom. Unless we reapply the classical liberal values that underlay our republic, we have a dismal future to look forward to no matter who is elected in November.
Contributing Editor Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C., and a columnist for the Copley News Service.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Viewpoint: The Choice We Don’t Have".