George romances the Nanny State: An Interview with Bruce Bartlett
By Bernard Chapin
Bruce Bartlett is a conservative economist who took degrees from Rutgers and Georgetown before serving in both the Reagan and (original) Bush administrations. Mr. Bartlett has always been associated with supply-side economics. Earlier this year he released Impostor: How George W. Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy which vigorously refutes the notion that our president is a conservative in any meaningful way. Mr. Bartlett has published voluminously and has penned over 900 articles. I usually access his columns by going to townhall.com where there is a permalink to his weekly efforts.
BC: Mr. Bartlett, for those who may not be familiar with your excellent book, could you provide a quick outline of what you have to say and what its central theme is?
Mr. Bartlett: I argue that Bush is not a true conservative, by which I mean a traditional or movement conservative. He is more of a reactionary who opposes liberalism, but without a coherent philosophy to replace it. Consequently, as president he has done many things that are inconsistent with a conservative governing philosophy, such as expanding government spending, imposing steel tariffs, increasing government regulation and other things I discuss in the book.
BC: You know, I just finished it earlier today but wonder if "Imposter" might be a slightly misleading title. It seems to me that "Failure" is more apropos because when a President gets quoted saying something as FDRish as, "We have a responsibility that when somebody hurts, government has to move," it becomes rather silly to doubt that he is in the midst of a mad affair with statism. Is my supposition wrong? Do you think he's consciously trying to dupe people?
Mr. Bartlett: I won't argue with you. But titles are basically chosen by publishers and I couldn't think of a better one than "Impostor."
BC: It would be instructive for readers if you would define what the difference is between a Republican and a conservative. For many on the left they are synonyms, but it seems to me that the disparities are quite pronounced.
Mr. Bartlett: While the Republican Party is the more conservative of the two major parties, its interests are not at all the same as those of the conservative movement. Republicans, ultimately, are only interested in getting elected and wielding power. Conservatives see elections not as ends, but means. They are a way of implementing a conservative agenda. But politicians by their nature are risk averse and always fearful of arousing the ire of the electorate. This means that they will always end up disappointing ideologues.
BC: How have your peers on the right reacted to Imposter? Did they accuse you of being a traitor? A paleocon?
Mr. Bartlett: No one has taken issue with my argument. Privately, many conservatives have said that they agree with me, but fear saying so publicly for fear of retaliation. The true believers have mostly ignored me. I know I have been banned from certain conservative radio talk shows where I used to appear regularly.
BC: Why is it that so many Republicans eschew associating themselves with Ronald Reagan? He was arguably the most effective President of the last fifty years yet it seems that nobody wants to have anything to do with him. In the text, a good point is made about sound policy being good politics, and it is a phrase that applies to Reagan more so than any other politician.
Mr. Bartlett: Excellent question. I think there is an opening in the Republican Party for someone to run for president as another Ronald Reagan. Unfortunately, at this time, I don't see anyone willing or able to do it.
BC: Along these lines, why don't politicians try to cut taxes more? And why does the general population tolerate their not doing so? Based on a piece I read of yours at the National Review website, 90 percent of us believe that no more than 29 percent of our earnings should be paid to the Leviathan. That being said, why is our government so obese?
Mr. Bartlett: There is a limit to how much you can cut taxes when spending is growing at double-digit rates. To get taxes much lower, spending must be cut. But no one wants to do that because it is hard and unpopular.
BC: Among economists in general, have the supply-siders prevailed? Does anyone doubt the existence between government confiscation of wealth and a subsequent decline in prosperity and economic growth? Does a concept like the Laffer Curve remain controversial?
Mr. Bartlett: I think it would be hard to find a reputable economist who thinks the top tax rate ought to go back up to 70%, where it was when Reagan was elected. And most would probably agree that there would be an increase in revenue from cutting the 70% rate to 50%, as Reagan did. But reasonable people can disagree about whether you would get much of a Laffer effect from cutting the 35% rate, which is the current top rate.
BC: One area of the book where you lost me was on page 56 where you criticized Congress for getting rid of the Corporate Alternative Minimum Tax. Call me a simpleton if you must, but isn't the reduction of taxes—regardless of what they specifically are for—a good in itself? Certainly in our present, taxation permeating the ether, environment, shouldn't we be grateful whenever those gluttons concede to cut anything at all?
Mr. Bartlett: You misunderstood what I was saying. I have long advocated getting rid of the corporate and individual AMT's. But what Congress wanted to do was not only repeal the corporate AMT but in effect refund previous taxes that had been paid. I thought that was a bad idea.
BC: Like you, the same chain of events led to my disillusionment with George W. Bush, but, in my case, it drove me to join the Libertarian Party. What would you say to those thinking of leaving the Republican Party due to its spendthrift ways? Are we right or wrong to do so? Can you think of a reason not to defect?
Mr. Bartlett: In my opinion, the LP is not a viable alternative to the Republicans and Democrats. In fact, I think it is counterproductive in terms of advancing a libertarian agenda. Its main effect is to drain libertarians away from the major parties, thus allowing statists in both parties to have even more influence. Then, when they realize that the LP is inherently unviable, they become discouraged and leave politics altogether. I think it would make much more sense for the LP to completely disappear and be replaced by an interest group, like the NRA, that would lobby within both parties for libertarian ideas.
BC: Well Mr. Bartlett, thank you for your time and I will make a point of recommending your book to my friends and relations.