Trump’s vision of capitalism is amoral

03:05 - Source: CNN
Examining Donald Trump's taxes

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Stanley: He seems to think that the capitalist should do whatever it takes to turn a profit

Doing something because you can is no reason to do something, Stanley says

Editor’s Note: Timothy Stanley is a historian and columnist for Britain’s Daily Telegraph. He is the author of “Citizen Hollywood: How the Collaboration Between L.A. and D.C. Revolutionized American Politics.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

CNN —  

The allegations made in The New York Times this weekend about Donald Trump’s 1995 tax returns may be what kills his chances of becoming president.

He’s not denied their two key points, being a) that they show the scale of his business failures, including a $916 million loss, and b) that those failures could have been used to avoid paying tax.

Trump has previously insisted that any avoidance would only prove that he is “smart.” But, if the return proves his critics right, it also raises questions about his ethics. And it betrays a conservative relationship with predatory capitalism that betrays capitalism itself.

Rudy Giuliani and Chris Christie have both insisted that Trump’s return proves that he’s the right man to fix a broken system. What he is alleged to have done is perfectly legal; the fact that he got away with it would simply show that he is clever:

“There’s no one who has shown more genius in their way to maneuver around the tax code and to rightfully use the laws to do that,” said Christie.

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And within a certain right-wing worldview, this argument has strengths. The state does not spend our money well. The kind of loopholes that Trump may have exploited were created by successive administrations with the intention of them being used. And by gaming the system, Trump’s businesses surely stayed afloat and kept the wider economy ticking along, right? In a way, according to this logic, we should be thanking him.

The simile is inexact, but I can’t help but think of a thief breaking into Christie’s house, stealing all his money – and Christie declaring afterward that he owes the thief a thank-you note for proving that his burglar alarm is ineffective.

Of course, the difference is that Trump broke no laws. But when a billionaire avoids paying taxes, he breaks a law that ought to be self-policing: the law of basic human decency.

If the tax return is accurate and tax was avoided, did The Donald never stop to think, “I ought to contribute something towards all the roads, cops, military, schools, etc., that my business empire relies upon?”

Doing something because you can is no reason to do something. If a crazed libertarian became president and somehow legalized murder, I assume that we wouldn’t all start doing it?, right The human conscience, which religious conservatives insist is the voice of God, would suggest otherwise.

Trump’s vision of capitalism is amoral. This is not to say that he is a bad person: he has raised plenty of money for charity and his presidential campaign betrays a deep concern for his country. But when it comes to doing business, he seems to think that the capitalist should do whatever it takes to turn a profit.

Tradesmen complain that he would make orders and then argue over how much he had to pay, if he paid them at all. It is claimed that banks would make massive loans, Trump would announce that he couldn’t meet the payments, and they would then have to bail him out because he was “too big to fail.” Again, the counter argument is that you want someone that brilliantly disingenuous on your side – “set a thief to catch a thief”, the old saying goes. But this depressing view of human relations is a betrayal of the founding principles of America, in which it was asserted that most people left alone would tend towards self-discipline, while a little law would iron out the rest.

Capitalism is supposed to inculcate morals. It assumes that people will honor deals, that a product is as good as the seller says it is, that theft is wrong. Capitalism and democracy work well together because authoritarian states undermine private property and distort the market. But a state is necessary – always necessary – to enforce the law and make sure the market works along agreed lines. In other words, by failing to pay taxes Trump not only did something bad in and of itself – he also did something that weakened capitalism by weakening the state. You can’t have good capitalism without good infrastructure, effective courts and well-trained cops.

Timothy Stanley
Timothy Stanley

Worse, he helped tarnish the free market’s reputation. If anything will eventually push America towards socialism, it will be the terrible image of its white-collar elites. Liberals have been telling the middle-classes for years that they pay an awful lot more for the terrible services they get.

The poor have exemptions and benefits; so do the rich. The difference being that the welfare-dependent non-tax payer ultimately has nothing. The Trumps of this world already have a lot and are given more on the basis that what’s good for them is good for us, too. It was popular fury at such injustices that led to progressivism in the early 20th century and the New Deal in the 1930s. Rich guys are being really, really stupid if they think nominating Trump was a smart thing to do for their cause.

The tax problem is a global phenomenon. In the UK, it was recently discovered that professional soccer players were being allowed to avoid some tax by redirecting their earnings. In India, a tax amnesty brought forward tens of thousands of people, revealing over $9.5 billion in previously undeclared earnings and assets.

No one likes paying taxes. Those of us who pay them, pay too much. But just as great a sense of injustice comes from those with a lot of money paying too little. It frays public harmony and undermines faith in free market capitalism.

Trump may find that there’s an unpopular double standard in asserting that he loves the people while, allegedly, failing to pay what he can towards their upkeep.