My first reaction to reading about Grover Norquist was to refuse to believe that he really existed. I think it’s mostly the name. After all, it sounds as if someone, perhaps a particularly bad writer of fanfiction, made him up specifically in order to mock American habits of nomenclature. It’s all there – the wilfully-odd first name with a historical ring to it, the hard-to-pronounce surname proclaiming immigrant roots (Swedish, I think). All that’s missing is “III” or “Jr.” at the end. Then there’s the obvious comic touch of naming a Republican lobbyist after a nineteenth-century Democratic President, Grover Cleveland. But no – Mr Norquist is quite real and, to judge from his photo, either gets regularly door-stepped by paparazzi trying to annoy him or thinks a menacing stare makes for good PR.
He is a lobbyist for lower taxes in the US and has cropped up in the news because of his role in the recent, failed negotiations between the Republicans and Democrats in Congress over reducing the national deficit there, his main role apparently being to make sure that whatever happened there were, as George Bush Sr. used to put it “no new taxes”. It would appear from the interview that their failure leaves him sanguine, since there will be no tax increases, so job done. His organisation, Americans for Tax Reform, apparently has written pledges from most Republican Congresspeople not to vote for any tax rises. This is clearly a powerful bargaining tool with politicians, although it has its limits. Hillary Clinton had Bill’s promise to foresake all others, and look where that got her.
I have to admit a long-standing indifference to all economics and a general lack of interest in tax. Mr Norquist clearly demurs, and when faced with people who disagree with you, you have to ask: why? The obvious answer is that Mr Norquist is a believer in small government who believes that lower taxes mean less government and probably also more economic growth. He’s probably also financed to buggery by wealthy people who want to pay less tax, but let’s not get too cynical about people’s motivations. Instead, let’s get cynical about government. True American that he is, Mr Norquist most likely has an 18th century Enlightenment vision of a minimal national government virtuously guaranteeing the rights of the citizen whilst interering as little as possible in their lives. Thomas Jefferson’s probably in there somewhere (all American politicians, from Communists to Libertarians, like to lay claim to him).
Cynical European that I am, I tend to regard all government as basically feudal. It’s a trade of loyalty from the less powerful in exchange for protection from the more powerful. Originally, it was just literal physical protection from ravaging bands of warriors, now it can extend to things like social welfare or health care. Originally, the trade was “we fight for you and/or work on your land in exchange for this protection.” Now, it’s “we pay you money in exchange for it.” So long as both sides keep their bargain, it works fine. So I don’t get worked up about my government taking money from me, how much they’re taking (until it becomes totally unreasonable) or about what they choose to spend it on, as long as I get sufficient levels of protection. The problem for me comes (a) if the government, as is increasingly the case nowadays, is increasingly in denial of this role and is telling its citizens to look after themselves when most of them simply don’t have the resources and (b) if some of the citizens, chiefly the richest, aren’t paying their fair share whilst still using plenty of public services because, however rich you are, you can’t contract out of using public services totally. You can get private health care and a private pension, you can even hire bodyguards, but if you get kidnapped you’ll still want the police to come and rescue you, if you do business abroad you’ll still want a diplomatic service to lobby for you and if you fall out with people you’ll still want to use the courts to sue them in.
To me the virtuous minimal government is a hopeless fantasy that flies in the face of these basic truths . We all still need the government to protect us, even the richest of us, and indeed we now expect more elaborate forms of protection from the government than ever. And for that, they expect hard cash in return. Cutting taxes just intereres with this process and doesn’t lead to some kind of political Utopia. I’m not enough of an economist to say whether it would be such a good idea to do it economically as to justify the hit, temporarily at least. However, I do think I can say that I think Mr Norquist’s political ideology belongs firmly in Disney World. Appropriately enough, the interview I read was done whilst he was heading for Florida on holiday with his family.