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Forbes: Speaking Freely




CAMPAIGN MANIFESTOS ARE USUALLY long on mushy high-minded sentiments and glittering policy generalities and short on real substance and hard choices. In A New Birth of Freedom, the reader will find some of that, but candidate for the Republican presidential nomination and publisher Steve Forbes also provides some real meat in this readable statement of principles.

In 1996, Forbes was clearly the policy thinker and innovator among Republican candidates. He advocated a flat tax to replace the absurdly byzantine and unfair income tax system and caught the imagination of many voters, winning both the Arizona and Delaware primaries. The eventual Republican nominee, Bob Dole, was forced to announce that he would cut taxes across the board by 15 percent in a half-hearted response to the popularity of Forbes’ simple and fair plan. Forbes also championed privatizing at least part of Social Security when establishment politicians shied away from suggesting any reforms to the so-called “third rail” of American politics (“touch it and you die”), and promoted the creation of school choice programs.

Forbes is still pushing these innovative proposals today. “The only thing we can do with this hideous beast is kill it, drive a stake through its heart, bury it, and hope that it never rises again to terrorize the American people,” declares Forbes of the current income tax code. He points out that there are 569 different tax forms and 17,000 pages of regulations amounting to more than 7,000,000 words in the IRS code. Nobody understands them all and tax compliance costs run about $250 billion per year. Forbes wants to abolish the IRS and replace it with a simple 17 percent income tax with high personal and child deductions such that a family of four making $36,000 or under would pay no federal tax at all.

In place of the current social security system, which is unsustainable in the long run, he outlines a plan that guarantees current recipients’ benefits will not be cut, but allows younger people to begin putting their payroll savings taxes into private IRA-like accounts. These accounts would be real assets that retirees could pass to heirs. If a couple earning $36,000 annually were permitted to invest their payroll taxes in a conservative stock and mutual fund account returning 7 percent annually (after inflation); they would retire with $700,000 in real dollars.

Forbes asserts that education should be primarily a local issue, but that national leadership can encourage programs in which parents receive scholarships they can use to pay for their childrens’ education at the schools of their choice. This engenders competition by transforming students and their parents from bureaucratic “clients” into “customers” shopping for a service. Competition improves the quality of goods and services in all other areas of our economy and would clearly do so for education as well.

The fact that all three of these proposals are now campaign staples that have been adopted by nearly all of the candidates in the 2000 race for the Republican presidential nomination shows that Forbes is a true political visionary. In addition to the big three above, Forbes also makes some sensible proposals about using markets rather than top-down regulations to protect the natural environment and extend health care to more citizens. He is against racial discrimination of all sorts, including affirmative action programs for minorities. And he feels welfare tempts our most vulnerable citizens into dependency and immorality.

However, no candidate is perfect. Forbes favors the continued prosecution of the drug war, which costs tens of billions annually and has not measurably reduced either the price of drugs or their use. This war has tossed hundreds of thousands of nonviolent offenders in prison, led to the increased militarization of our police forces, and increasingly endangers our broader civil liberties, while severely undermining the stability of many foreign governments. Forbes might have been expected to offer new ideas for handling the drug problem rather than just a more vigorous pursuit of already badly failed policy. And Forbes more or less endorsed the Kansas state school board’s daft decision to ban the teaching of evolution in public schools. Of course, nearly all of the other candidates did too.

At the moment, Forbes’ chances of a term in office don’t look promising. But his ideas, once thought unrealistically radical, are now mainstream Republican Party dogma. Forbes has pointed his fellow citizens to the promised land of limited government and greater prosperity, although he won’t be able lead them into it himself. However, he can take solace in the fact that his book is a readable and provocative presentation of his innovative political visions.

Ronald Bailey is the science correspondent for Reason magazine and his new book Earth Report 2000 was just published by McGraw-Hill. Also, in the interests of full disclosure, he is proud to say that he worked as a staff writer for Forbes magazine in from 1988 to 1990.

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