The U.S. Should Be More Like Switzerland, You Can't Shoot the Government and Other Thoughts From Grover Norquist

Grover Norquist, founder of the taxpayer advocacy group Americans for Tax Reform, in Washington, D.C., on June 27, 2012. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

There are few people who would attempt to explain the Democratic Party's approach to taxation with an allusion to serial killer Richard Speck. Even fewer could pull it off without clearing the room. To his credit, Grover Norquist, the founder of Americans for Tax Reform, managed the feat, reminding the audience for his 30-minute talk at the California Republican convention in mid-October what makes him the most influential proponent of tax cuts in Washington, D.C. Ninety percent of Republicans in Congress have signed his pledge, which binds them to the promise of never voting for a net income tax increase. And while some accuse Norquist of a dogmatic approach that forestalls the possibility of compromise, he is a lively defender of his ideas, skewering tax-happy liberals while energetically promoting his belief that free enterprise can cure all that government can't.

Newsweek spoke with Norquist about two weeks before Republicans on the House Committee on Ways and Means released its Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which generally adhered to proposals that had been discussed by congressional Republicans and President Donald Trump.

Were you at Steve Bannon's speech last night? He called you his brother.
Yes, I was. I was in the back of the large room and raised my hand when he asked if I was there, but I don't think he saw me.

He proposed a 44 percent top tax rate. How does your vision of tax cuts accord with his economic nationalism?
I haven't talked to Bannon about the comment. I did write something or tweet something about the idea of raising the top rate being crazy a few times just to discourage that from becoming a thing. The White House completely dismissed the idea of a higher tax rate. The House did also. Everyone. It was a dead cat bounce.

My theory is that this administration is sensitive to being attacked for being pro-rich people. I wouldn't mind if there was a fifth top rate or fourth top rate. I think there's value to saying, "We've cut everyone's tax rates," but if you had a couple of wobbly senators, and this [fourth top rate] made them un-wobbly, take it and be back to lower those rates later.

So whatever it takes to get the GOP tax package through Congress?
Yes. As long as it's dramatically pro-growth: a 20 percent or 15 percent business tax rate, yes. Full business expensing, yes. Moving to a territorial tax system, yes. Corporate and individual rates down, yes. It will be very pro-growth. This is a jobs bill, not just a tax bill. We need to have economic growth because only then can you do all the other things that you want to do.

Some claim that the Bush tax cuts of 2003 fostered something like the creation of 7 million jobs, but how do you know that? How do you know the tax cuts lead to growth?
You can look at examples. When we cut marginal tax rates in the '20s, from 75 percent down to 25 percent, you had strong economic growth. Then we increased the tariffs, slowed things down, and you had the collapse of international trade and the stock market, and then they raised the taxes up to 75 percent again. Then you had the Great Depression. The Great Depression was the first recession that the government tried to fix—and it lasted for around 10 or 15 years, depending on how you count it.

Are you confident that this will create jobs?
Yeah. Mm-hmm.

High-paying jobs?
Yeah, all kinds.

Because we don't want $10-an-hour jobs. Right? We want—
Well, better that than nothing. Better that no job. Right?

But we're close to full employment...
No. We are only close to full employment if you ignore the people who stopped looking. Labor participation fell during the Obama recovery. Labor participation is supposed to go up during a recovery, not fall during a recovery, as it did this time.

Do you think, for liberals, raising taxes is a policy goal or a moral goal?
It depends on what a liberal is, OK? Is John F. Kennedy a liberal? Kennedy took the top rate from 90 percent to 70 percent. He had a 22 percent cut across the board. Reagan had a 25 percent cut across the board. They did the same thing.

Do you believe that taxing the rich is a fundamental liberal goal?
It is in the sense that the D's are trying to argue that people who succeeded in life don't deserve it.

Does altruism bring happiness?
Yes, but first of all it is part of earned success. I am altruistic because I earned this money. I earned this dollar. I give it to you. I give you something I created.

Isn't that what taxes are?
No, taxes are people stealing stuff from you. Altruism or charity is not, "I earned a dollar and somebody came and stole it." It won't feel good when somebody mugs me.

Are you a radical individualist? Do you believe that society has no role other than funding the military and providing a modicum of social order?
Separate society and government. Society can do lots of things. Society can get together and shame people who drink too much. Society can decide that how John F. Kennedy treated women was perfectly fine and how Harvey Weinstein treated women is unacceptable. Churches and voluntary institutions like families are society.

The state is people with guns who can make you do things. It is the monopoly on the initiation of force. The only people who can legally come and initiate force against you is the government. And you can't complain about it. If somebody tries to stab you with a knife, you can shoot them. If the police show up, and you shoot at them, that is resisting arrest. You can't legally shoot back at the government.

So, then, that application of force, or the threat of force, is the only role government has?
It is the only power it has.

Not the power of taxation?
At the end of the day, behind every law, behind every tax, there is a gun. If there isn't a gun, you don't have a law.

Let's take environmental regulations and our friend Environmental Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt. For you, like him, I'm guessing, those Obama-era clean power plant goals are intrusions on the private market, and government has no business.
What we used to do in the United States, what we did under common law, going back to England: If somebody is poisoning the water upstream, that is tortuous. You can sue. But there has to be harm, OK? What the bureaucrats, what the environmentalists do is, "Well, it is not clear there is harm yet, but we think it is icky to have discolored water." And so they make up some rule. But tort law was not not working.

That reduces environmental regulation to just questions of property rights.
Your right to act based on whether you're actually hurting somebody else. You'd have to prove it. I'm sorry, but if I'm bothering somebody, they can sue me. Much of what the government does is stupid, vicious laws.

So for you, the market would solve...
Most problems.

What kind of problems is it incapable of solving?
Murder of people who don't arm themselves. Invasions from Canada. Most governments throughout history are somewhere in between Henry VIII and Genghis Khan and Mao, Hitler and Stalin. So we're doing much better than that.

Is there any society throughout the history of Western civilization that has achieved the kind of vision that you have?
Over time, Switzerland. They have a federal government with a very light touch. They have less government than in other places.

It's a small, isolated country.
Not too small. It's larger than most countries throughout history. It is in the middle of Europe.

You mentioned earlier the notion of an armed citizen being a complete citizen. Right? Because then he or she doesn't need protection from the state. Has the shooting in Las Vegas all made you reconsider your stance on guns?
No. Why would it? Liberals like to attack inanimate objects. I've never understood this fear of inanimate objects. They just sit there. John Lott did a study of all the states, and the longer your state had concealed-carry laws, the faster your violent crime rate falls compared to non-conceal-carry states. So there's been a secular trend down in the violent crime rate from the '80s till now, bumped up a little bit recently, but still a fraction of what it was in '60s and '70s and even the '90s. That correlates with conceal-carry permits, and it correlates by state with conceal-carry permits.

But do the social costs of gun ownership worry you? Those costs being mass shootings.
You can't get a police state tough enough to stop that stuff.

Do you think liberals are just clueless?
If you have a 5-year-old who threw a kitten off a multistory building, and you went and said, "Why did you throw the cat off the building?" He might say, "I thought it could fly." You'd explain cats can't fly. But, if when he was 25, he kept doing this, and there was a pile of dead cats outside the building, you would come to think he didn't like cats.

It's possible that the 5-year-old just didn't see the cat at the bottom. But the 25-year-old, every time he goes out of the front door, he's seeing a pile of dead cats—and he keeps at it. So I think the 25-year-old liberals know what damage they are doing, and they don't care. And the 5-year-old liberals are just trying to see if the cats will fly.