Bohanon: The Education of a Progressive

January 25, 2016

by Cecil Bohanon, Ph.D.

This year will likely be remembered as the year of the populist revolt. Populism is a political philosophy that calls for the government to represent the interests of the ordinary person. Populist candidates typically argue that the current crop of political leaders are beholden to narrow elites at the expense of the common man.

The populists of 2016 are Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. Sander’s bête noire are billionaires who are corrupting politics and ought to pay more in taxes, while Trump rails against illegal immigrants and stupid politicians bullied by rapacious foreigners who take advantage of ordinary Americans.

When I was 18 years-old in 1972, I was a George McGovern progressive. I decked my 1962 Studebaker Lark with dozens of McGovern stickers much to the chagrin of my father who was a Goldwater Republican. Readers old enough will recall that McGovern’s perspective was similar to that of Sander’s: He wanted to radically expand the federal government programs especially for the poor and finance this expansion by taxing the “rich.”

I stopped being a progressive many years ago, but it didn’t happen all at once. Let me share an epiphany from that 1972 campaign that nudged me back to the Goldwater camp.

One day I was rifling through the daily household mail, I saw a letterhead for “Engineers for McGovern” addressed to my father who was a mechanical engineer. Knowing he would have no use for it I absconded it. I opened the letter fully expecting to be filled with redistributionist rhetoric — appealing to the well-educated well-paid engineer’s sense of social conscience and collective beneficence, urging them to support McGovern to help the poor and dispossessed. Instead, it was all about expanding federal government grants for engineering research under a McGovern Administration.

“Well, of course,” I thought, “engineers, even my dad, were people too; they are worthy of federal redistribution.” But somewhere back in brain cell 477 — a thought was planted: If every conceivable group is to be the beneficiary of federal largesse, who pays for it? I was stumbling onto that great insight the French economist-journalist Fredrich Bastiat had outlined in the 1840s — the fools’ gold fallacy of populism that says, “The State is the great fiction through which everyone endeavors to live at the expense of everyone else.”

Over the years I have come to believe that the legislative-bureaucratic process unhampered by constitutional constraints leads to a bloated public sector. Programs putatively designed to help the poor are often thinly veiled guises for narrow special interests. The sincerest efforts to redistribute income to the poor are inevitable inflicted by a tendency for the benefits to “trickle-up.” Government programs meant to help the poor are at best mildly redistributive; more problematically they set up all kinds of malicentives that trap the poor. Indeed, in 1972 around 15 percent of the population was in poverty. Despite 44 years and trillions of dollars of federal spending later the poverty rate is still at around 15 percent of the population in 2016.

It seems absurd that the progressive McGovern-Sanders income redistribution mantra is an answer to the economic or political problems of 1972 or 2016. I hope we have the collective wisdom to reject it in 2016 as we did in 1972. But what of Mr. Trump’s populism? In my humble opinion, it is even worse. Stay tuned: more later.

Cecil Bohanon, Ph.D., a founding scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, is a professor of economics and Ball State University. This is the first in a group of articles he is writing on issues of the 2016 election.


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