Trump and Clinton ignore economic freedom during first presidential debate

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On Monday, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton squared off in perhaps the most highly anticipated presidential debate in history. As the candidates went back and forth for 90 minutes, a major theme of past presidential debates and indeed of the American experiment itself was conspicuous by its absence. That theme is economic freedom.

A review of the transcript drives home the extent to which the issue of economic freedom, and who is best equipped to defend and promote it, was absent from the proceedings. The word “freedom” was spoken precisely zero times during the debate. 

The failure of either candidate to discuss economic freedom is discouraging, since free enterprise and an economy based largely on voluntary transactions rather than government control are crucial reasons that America emerged as an economic superpower in the first place.

Indeed, throughout the 1980s and 1990s, America was a global leader in economic freedom and prosperity due to comparatively modest tax rates, a relatively small government, and somewhat less onerous economic regulations than other countries. This policy mix served America well, and helped make American living standards among the very highest in the world.

But the problem is that economic freedom in the United States has been in decline for some time. A recent analysis shows that between 2000 and 2013, government spending as a share of all consumption in the U.S. increased. That means more decisions are being made by governments and less by private citizens and businesses. Further, in recent years, policymakers have increased personal income taxes and added more onerous regulations.

As a result, the United States is less free than it used to be. In fact, America has gone from being the world’s third most economically free country in 2000 to the 16th freest in 2014. Given the strong relationship between economic freedom and economic performance, nobody should be surprised that America’s economic performance has been underwhelming during this period. Real economic growth has been below its historic average, and job growth has lagged behind levels from recent decades.

Partly for these reasons, reversing the decline of economic freedom in the United States should be a top priority for the next president. But Monday’s debate sadly suggests that neither candidate views the decline of economic freedom in America as an important issue.

This dimension of the debate was depressing, but perhaps it shouldn’t have been surprising given that neither major candidate has put forth a consistent vision for a more economically free and prosperous America.

Indeed, for Mr. Trump, railing against free trade and suggesting the need for more barriers to restrict the flow of goods and services across North American borders has been a cornerstone of his campaign. On the other hand, Secretary Clinton has called for further tax hikes and even more government spending —not what the American economy or its highly indebted government needs.

The candidates pounded these themes on Monday night while ignoring the core question of how to actually enhance freedom and give American citizens and businesses themselves greater scope to improve their own circumstances through hard work, prudent planning and entrepreneurship.

Economic freedom has been waning in the U.S. for years, and the debate gave discouraging indications that this trend may continue regardless of who wins in November. This isn’t just sad news for Americans, but for people all around the world, including Canadians. The U.S. has long been an international leader in economic freedom, helping show the world how freedom drives prosperity and improves lives. The weakening of that example undermines the cause of economic freedom globally. Simply put, the world is better off when the U.S. is economically strong, economically free, and confidently engaged with other countries, allowing the free flow of goods and services across borders. 

Sadly, America is headed the wrong way. Viewers tuning in Monday night hoping one candidate or the other would signal hope for a change in direction would have been badly disappointed. 


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