Bill Niskanen and a Collectible Corporate Income Tax

2nd March 2019 Off By binary
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(This post originally appeared on my Patreon page.)

Bill Niskanen was the rarest of all creatures, an honest libertarian. He actually believed in libertarian ideas, rather than just using them as an excuse for policies to redistribute income upward.

He headed the Cato Institute for more than two decades, from 1985 until 2008. While CATO generally took conservative views, it also followed Niskanen’s principled libertarianism. This meant the institute was anti-imperialist. Niskanen argued that we needed a defense budget to protect the United States, not to police the world. Cato regularly called for sharper declines in military spending that almost all the liberal think tanks in DC.

He also was a strong opponent of the Iraq War. I remember in the months leading up to the war, bumping into him at various events. Bill would point to the various Republican foreign policy experts (not those in the Bush administration) who had publicly warned of the dangers of the war.

He would ask me “where are the Democrats?” While I could point to then fringe figures, like Bernie Sanders, the fact was that most of the Democratic leadership had fallen in line in support of the war. (Nancy Pelosi was a notable exception.) Bill’s opposition to the war angered many prominent Republicans, including Cato donors.

Anyhow, when I was on a panel with him, it was usually to discuss economic issues. I always appreciated his honesty. I remember, back in the 1990s, debating replacing the progressive income tax with a flat tax, which was a popular idea among Republicans at the time. Most of the flat tax proponents would come up with absurd stories about everyone would pay less, and we would end up with just as much revenue.

Once with Bill, I got to go first, and said something to the effect of “a flat tax is about having the middle class pay more so that the rich can pay less.” Bill responded by saying that this is essentially right, but went on to explain how this would be a good thing, because it would lead to a more efficient tax system, and therefore more growth, and make everyone better off. Bill believed this, so he didn’t have to lie.

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