Grover G. Norquist '78, president of Americans for Tax Reform, which aims to reduce government spending, is an economist and self-proclaimed “tax guy.” Norquist spoke with FM about the development of his political views, his thoughts on the modern Republican Party, and his take on the United States’ current economic challenges.
1. Fifteen Minutes: What were the inspirations for your early political views?
Grover G. Norquist: I was an anti-communist before I was political in other ways. I read a great deal about the Soviet Union—my public library decided to get rid of all its ‘annoying’ books, which meant all of the right-of-center books, and sold them all off for a nickel or a dime or a quarter. I picked up “I Led Three Lives,” by Herb Philbrick, the guy who was a spy inside the communist party. So I was an anti-communist first, and then over time became active in the Republican Party, and then broadened my interest set into market economics and, in college, I knew I was a free market person.
2. FM: So what led you to adopt the political views you currently hold?
GGN: Common sense and history. You look at those countries and parts of the world that had low taxes and less regulation and freedom of movement. Carthage—I mean all the great countries when they were great were open to immigration, open to new ideas, open to freedom, more open economically. And as countries have too much government and too much government control, they stagnate. If you look around, East Germany is less nice than West Germany, and North Korea is less pleasant than South Korea.
3. FM: Ideally, what should be the role of government?
GGN: Government should enforce rule of law. It should enforce contracts, it should protect people bodily from being attacked by criminals. And when the government does those things, it is facilitating liberty. When it goes beyond those things, it becomes destructive to both human happiness and human liberty.
4. FM: You are known for saying that you want government to be “the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.” Can you elaborate on this?
GGN: I want to drop the government in half over the next 25 years, and then drop it in half again. The government’s about 33 percent of GDP, 33 percent of the economy. We want to take it down to 16 and a half percent, then take it down to eight percent, all of which would take us to where we were at the turn of the century.
5. FM: Do you think this is something that the United States can realistically achieve?
GGN: Yeah, I think we can. We were on a trajectory during the six years of a Republican Congress, even with Clinton fighting against it. If we had kept on that path for fifteen years straight ahead, we would have dropped the size of the federal government by 40 percent, as a percentage of the economy. The economy was growing and we were holding the growth of government down. Bush turned around and spent too much, and Obama turned around and said, ‘All those stupid things Bush is doing, we’re going to do 10 times that much.’ So he did stupid on steroids.
6. FM: What’s your position on the 16th Amendment, which provides the federal government the ability to leverage an income tax?
GGN: The country and the economy would have been better off if they hadn’t put it in. It was put in on the promise that it would only hit a few people and of course now it hits almost everybody. So it was probably not the wisest thing that Congress ever did.
7. FM: If not by raising taxes, what do you think is the best way for the country to begin to reduce the over 13 trillion dollar deficit?
GGN: What’s hurting the US economy is total government spending. The deficit is an indicator that the government is spending so much money that it can’t even get around to stealing all of the money that it wants to spend. But the tip of the iceberg is not what hit the Titanic—it was the 90 percent of the iceberg under water. So step one: stop spending so much. It’s hysterical to listen to people in Washington D.C.—‘We’ve got to figure out how to deal with this spending problem.’ It’s like somebody who’s trying to lose weight who really wants to lose weight but doesn’t want to exercise or diet. Obama would really like to reduce—well, he doesn’t even say he wants to reduce government spending. He misdirects you to the deficit and says, ‘We’d like to fix the deficit.’ No exercise, no diet.
8. FM: How would you have proposed to deal with the latest recession if it wasn’t for the stimulus package?
GGN: The stimulus package only made things worse. Ever since the stimulus package, unemployment has gone up, growth has been slower. The Keynesian economic theory runs as follows: a government’s going to take a dollar from somebody who earned it and give a dollar to somebody who didn’t earn it and we’re all going to be richer, and we’re going to do this 800 billion times. After you do that 800 billion times, you have in fact taken money from people who earned it and given it to people who are politically connected, but how in the world do you believe that that leads to economic growth?
9. FM: What would have been the consequences if, say, AIG had not received any stimulus?
GGN: Well, to the extent that there were real assets there, they would be redeployed into the economy in real ways, and the people who had made those decisions would probably be out of work. But we also need to go to pro-growth policies. We should have zero capital gains tax. We should abolish the death tax. We have a corporate tax rate of 35 percent, when the average in Europe is 25 percent. We ought to at least take our corporate tax rate to 25 percent. Our personal tax rate, now at 35 percent, should go to 25 percent. Serfs in medieval Europe were taxed 20 to 25 percent. I don’t think we should be taxed higher than serfs.
10. FM: In 1915, the richest one percent of Americans possessed 18 percent of the nation’s income. It was around this time that Congress passed the 16th Amendment, which was an effort to even out the wealth disparities at the time. Today, the richest one percent of Americans take home 24 percent of the nation’s income. Do you view this wealth inequality as problematic?
GGN: No, because it’s not any of the government’s business who earns what, as long as they earn it legitimately. The problem that Robin Hood had with the Sheriff of Nottingham was the Sheriff of Nottingham used the power of taxation to steal all his money. It wasn’t that the Sheriff was rich: the Sheriff was the government and all the money he had was stolen. The government ought not to be in the business of making some people rich at the expense of others.
11. FM: So you believe that there should be no wealth redistribution?
GGN: No forced wealth redistribution. I’m all in favor of, you know, rich people wanting to contribute money to somebody else. One of the things that’s interesting is none of the rich liberals actually believes in government. Warren Buffett, who says he’s a big liberal who liked Obama, he has millions of dollars. If he thought any of the United States government spent money better than he does, he could make a contribution to the federal government. And he never does. He gives all his money to private charities, because he thinks he can spend his money better than the government can, but he wants everybody else to have higher taxes because he thinks the government can spend your money better than you can. This is not an endorsement of government. It’s an expression of contempt for you.
12. FM: What’s your view on the Tea Party movement?
GGN: Tremendous asset.
13. FM: Would you call any current Republican politicians too conservative?
GGN: Too conservative in the sense of not wanting to be radical enough? Sure. There are some who are dragging their feet in wanting to oppose spending. Too conservative meaning their vision of limited government has the government too teeny? I can’t think of any.
14. FM: Are there any moderate Republicans left?
GGN: I’m a moderate Republican. There are people who are extremes on either side of me, but I pretty much define a reasonable position on these things.
15. FM: Who would you support for Republican Presidential nomination in 2012?
GGN: The person who wins the nomination. I don’t have a favorite. Somebody who won’t raise taxes or steal my guns or occupy any number of foreign countries.