The Democrats Love to Promise Voters Free Stuff That Isn't Free at All | Opinion

The real winners of the two-night debate between the various Democrats bidding for their party's presidential nomination are the people who didn't watch. Those who did got four hours, to paraphrase William Shakespeare, of lots of sounds and a little fury, largely signifying nothing.

The hallmark of each contest was, of course, the attempt by the various candidates to buy the votes of different constituencies important to the party's nominating process. So there was lots of talk of free stuff, which, as former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper timidly tried to point out whenever the wheel stopped and he was able to get a word in, isn't free at all.

Let's look at some of what they're proposing costs. According to numbers provided by House Budget Committee Republicans, eliminating existing health care coverage and imposing a "One-Size-Fits-All, Single-Payer System" would cost $3.2 trillion a year. The yearly price tag on the "Green New Deal" is $9.3 trillion. Free college? $125 billion a year. By contrast, the so-called "wealth tax" proposed by Senator Elizabeth Warren would, according to former U.S. Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, bring in somewhere between $25 billion and $75 billion in year one.

The data, even when it's crunched by friends, just don't add up. The Democrats who want to be president as proposing to spend far more than their tax plans will take in—which means, once again, that the middle class will get soaked.

No one talked about that Wednesday or Thursday—even though NBC's Savannah Guthrie tried to get Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders to admit it—but that's what to expect from a modern presidential campaign in its earliest stages. The number of Twitter followers a candidate has is more important than the details of his or her tax policy.

Noted journalist H.L. Menken once wrote that elections are "an early auction on stolen goods." The Democrats who debated this week are turning an auction into a fire sale.

It's not just that their plans to combat global warming and fix the mess they helped create with Obamacare are expensive (they are) but that most of their platforms consist of getting other people to pay for the goodies they're cheerfully talking about handing out like candy canes at Macy's Santa Claus display.

"Bribes, subsidies and targeted tax benefits all serve the same purpose, and that is to buy votes, often with other people's money," noted economist Richard Rahn, a founding member of the school now known as supply-side economics, told me. Which is what the business of campaign is now largely about for both Democrats and Republicans.

There's a difference though, between calling for college to be free, or student debt to be eliminated, or reparations to be paid to African Americans, or gay couples to be reimbursed if they had to file taxes separately because they couldn't marry, and, as President Donald Trump and others proposed and accomplished, cutting the corporate tax rate and the individual marginal tax rates.

Tax cuts are not, per se, vote buying. "Tax cuts let people keep their own money," economist Steve Moore said to me, while "reparations let people take other people's money." This is precisely the point, which is why the Democrats are likely headed to defeat if they continue down this path.

Americans are used to working hard. They expect to. Many of us even enjoy it—and we expect to be able to keep the fruits of our labors, at least most of them. Reductions in the marginal rates for people who pay taxes on their income—and almost half the population doesn't—mean if you work harder and earn more, the opportunity now exists to keep more of what you earn.

For those unfamiliar with economics or the English language, this is called "incentive."

Since economist and recent Presidential Medal of Freedom awardee Dr. Art Laffer and others convinced President Ronald Reagan to adopt this as the basis of his tax policy, the world has created, by some estimates, more than $100 trillion in new wealth.

What we heard Wednesday and Thursday from the Democrats is how inequitable that is. They would prefer, some of them, to have that money transferred to the people who may or may not be economically disadvantaged based almost solely on the color of the recipients' skin. That's buying votes with other people's money for no possible productive purpose and would cost, Yahoo Finance said Friday, based on the text of a bill now being marked up in the U.S. House of Representatives, in excess of $17 trillion.

Democratic Debate hug
Democratic presidential candidates embrace after the first night of the Democratic presidential debate on June 26 in Miami. Joe Raedle/Getty

"Cost," in this sense of the word, means a transfer of wealth from those who earned it to other people. When done at gunpoint, it's called "stealing." When done by the government, it's called by other, more polite-sounding names, but, from a moral standpoint, it's largely the same thing.

And, worse yet, its impact on economic growth would likely be minimal at best. But the Democrats running for president, most of them, don't care. They're out to win votes by promising stuff to key voter blocks that would be free to them. The people who will have pay for it all probably won't like it much, which is why socialism without coercion doesn't work, can't work and won't work. Of course, nobody asked about that at either debate. Maybe next time.

Newsweek contributing editor Peter Roff has written extensively about politics and the American experience for U.S. News and World Report, United Press International, and other publications. He can be reached by email at Follow him on Twitter @PeterRoff.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.

This story has been updated with estimates from the House Budget Committee Republicans.