Barry Goldwater and
a Conservative View of Taxation
By John Hendrickson
Goldwater, who served as a United States Senator from Arizona and the
Republican presidential nominee in 1964, was a major leader of the
modern American conservative movement. Goldwater was an unashamed
conservative and challenged the liberal New Deal and Great Society
orthodoxy. Although he lost the 1964 election in a landslide to
President Lyndon B. Johnson, he paved the way for Ronald Reagan’s
conservative revolution in 1980. Goldwater was a conservative who fought
for limited government policies and a return to constitutional
principles. He also believed that limited government and economic
liberty was the best path to national prosperity. Goldwater outlined his
political philosophy in The Conscience of a Conservative, which
provided a policy and philosophical blueprint to solve both foreign and
domestic policy problems. In the area of taxation, Goldwater championed
a tax policy that was in line with the policy of a limited government.
Today’s policymakers can learn a lot from Goldwater’s ideas on tax
argued that taxation was not just an economic concern, but also a moral
concern. “We have been led to look upon taxation as merely a problem of
public financing: How much money does the government need? We have been
led to discount, and often to forget altogether, the bearing of taxation
on the problem of individual freedom,” stated Goldwater.
Taxation was a moral concern because it deals directly with property
rights. As Goldwater stated:
the industrial age, earnings are probably the most prevalent form of
property…How can he be free if the fruits of his labor are not his to
dispose of, but are treated, instead, as part of a common pool of public
wealth? Property and freedom are inseparable: to the extent government
takes the one in the form of taxes, it intrudes on the other.
did not argue that government did not have the right to levy taxes, but
taxation must not be made a class issue for the purpose of
redistribution of wealth. “Government, in other words, has some claim on
our wealth, and the problem is to define that claim in a way that gives
due consideration to the property rights of the individuals,” noted
At the core
of tax policy was the Constitution. The Constitution addresses the
responsibilities of the federal government, which will influence tax
policy because Congress will spend tax money in order to pay for the
necessary constitutional functions of the government. Article 1, Section
8, for example lists the powers and responsibilities of Congress. As
to the federal government, the Constitution is the proper standard of
legitimacy: its ‘legitimate’ powers, as we have seen are those the
Constitution has delegated to it. Therefore, if we adhere to the
Constitution, the federal government’s total tax bill will be the cost
of exercising such of its delegated powers as our representatives deem
necessary in the national interest. But conversely, when the federal
government enacts programs that are not authorized by its delegated
powers, the taxes needed to pay for such programs exceed the
government’s rightful claim on our wealth.
believed that the Constitution limited the powers of the federal
government and therefore Congress was limited in its legislative scope.
The Constitution, Goldwater argued, was “an instrument, above all, for
limiting the functions of government, and which is as binding today as
when it was written.”
spending and tax policy went together and Goldwater argued that limiting
spending was just as crucial as or even more crucial than cutting tax
rates. He argued that “as a practical matter spending cuts must come
before tax cuts. If we reduce taxes before firm, principled decisions
are made about expenditures; we will court deficit spending and
inflationary effects that invariably follow.”
Goldwater understood the virtue of a balanced budget as well as low tax
rates. In fact during the 1950s Goldwater worked with Senator Robert A.
Taft, who was the conservative leader from Ohio, to advance both
spending and tax cuts. After Taft’s death in the early part of the
1950s, Goldwater assumed the leadership of fiscal conservatism in the
Republican Party and often criticized uncontrolled spending in Congress.
spending cuts, Goldwater also pushed the federal government to return
back to constitutional, limited-government principles:
government must begin to withdraw from a whole series of programs that
are outside its constitutional mandate — from social welfare programs,
education, public power, agriculture, public housing, urban renewal and
all other activities that can be better performed by lower levels of
government or by private institutions or by individuals. I do not
suggest that the federal government drop all of these programs
overnight. But I do suggest that we establish, by law, a rigid timetable
for a staged withdrawal. We might provide, for example, for a 10 percent
spending reduction each year in all of the fields in which federal
participation is undesirable.
returning to constitutional, limited government could the nation “obtain
relief from high taxes, and start making progress toward regaining their
spending and taxes would not only bring a return to constitutional
government, but economic growth as well. Economic growth, Goldwater
argued, “will be achieved, not by the government harnessing the nation’s
economic forces, but by emancipating them.”
“By reducing taxes and spending we will not only return to the
individual the means with which he can assert his freedom and dignity,
but also guarantee to the nation the economic strength that will always
be its ultimate defense against foreign foes,” stated Goldwater.
conservative philosophy, which was rooted in constitutional limited
government, is desperately needed today, especially with the current
economic problems. The nation is emerging out of a major recession with
a weak recovery that is being hindered by policies that Goldwater fought
against during the 1950s and 1960s. The massive increase in regulatory
activity by the federal government, the entitlement crisis, and the
emergence of federal control over health care with the Patient
Protection and Affordable Care Act, have all created uncertainty over
rates, especially the corporate tax rate, are causing business
uncertainty. The national debt crisis threatens to cripple the economy
and also poses as a national security risk as the United States is in
debt to various foreign nations, especially the Chinese. Currently, the
national debt is over $14 trillion and Congress will decide whether or
not to raise the debt ceiling this summer. In addition, Congress in the
past few years has been running deficits in the trillions, and these
deficits are expected to continue unless spending is reduced. Clearly
the federal government has a spending problem.
who favored a flat tax policy, was correct in pushing for spending and
tax cuts, but more importantly fighting to restore constitutional,
limited government. This is the policy that is needed to solve today’s
economic problems. The Conscience of a Conservative provides a
policy blueprint for policymakers to follow. Patrick J. Buchanan
described Goldwater’s book as “our new testament; it contained the core
beliefs of our political faith…”
“In this sermon of fire and brimstone that is The Conscience of a
Conservative, Barry Goldwater had the answers, if only we had
followed his wise counsel,” wrote Buchanan.
Hopefully policymakers will follow Goldwater’s example and restore
constitutional, limited government.
Hendrickson is a Research Analyst at Public Interest Institute.
expressed herein are those of the author and not necessarily those of
Public Interest Institute or Tax Education Foundation. They are brought
to you in the interest of a better-informed citizenry.
Barry M. Goldwater, The Conscience of a Conservative, MJF
Books, New York, 1990, p. 47.
Patrick J. Buchanan, “The Voice in the Desert,” introduction
to, The Conscience of a Conservative, MJF Books, New
York, 1990, p. ix.