I’m often struck by how little the economic debate in the U.S. has shifted over the years. The Left believes government should provide a basic level of security to all citizens (e.g., Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security in the U.S.), while the Right wants to leave as much wealth as possible in the hands of private citizens who can put capital to work efficiently through free markets. The Left fears a dog-eat-dog system where the average person is exploited, filled with economic anxiety, and cannot count on retiring with dignity; the Republicans fear a paternal state that makes decisions for you and deprives you of your freedom.
The legendary figure for the Right is Ayn Rand. She saw taxes as coercive. Ayn Rand might have agreed that cancer research is a worthy endeavor; but to pay for it by collecting taxes, for her, would mean being told at gunpoint to pay up. There’s some truth to this. If you refuse to pay taxes, you will go to jail. If you don’t want to go to jail, you will be forced to. At gunpoint. Or you can pay your taxes. At gunpoint. Do government programs reduce individual freedom. Well, in a way, ‘yes’.
On the other hand, imagine a society where only the very wealthy can afford a good education, health care, etc. Look back on the days of the Industrial Revolution where there were virtually no controls on the safety and wages that companies provided to laborers, including children. You might say that everyone had more freedom – even the laborers. But I’ll bet it didn’t feel that way.
Freedom is a funny thing. If companies gain the freedom to dump waste into the rivers, communities lose the freedom to drink clean water. When those on the Right advocate for freedom, they are advocating specifically for freedom from government coercion.
Back when FDR proposed Social Security, a Republican representative from New York warned that, with this program, Americans would feel “the lash of the dictator.” Another Republican representative from New York said that “Never in the history of the world has any measure been brought here so insidiously designed as to prevent business recovery, to enslave workers.”
When the government controls money that would otherwise flow through the free market system might the economy be weakened? Yes, it might. Does the collection of taxes to pay for these programs constitute a kind of coercion? In a way, ‘yes’. Is the Right correct that government programs reduce freedom? Yes, freedom of a sort. Those on the Left have another kind of freedom in mind.