Mitt Romney continues to repeat the talking point that the United States is "only inches away from no longer being a free economy." But we’ve ruled it Pants on Fire twice-- and now he's achieved a PolitiFact hat trick.
During the Jan. 7, 2012, Republican presidential debate in Manchester, N.H., former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney once again stated, "We're only inches away from no longer being a free economy."
Previously, Romney had said essentially the same thing during a Republican presidential debate in Ames, Iowa, on Aug. 11, 2011, and in his June 2, 2011, presidential announcement at a farm in Stratham, N.H.
As we indicated when we first checked this claim in June, we at PolitiFact tolerate a bit of hyperbole from politicians on all sides when they’re trying to make a point. So we’re not literally using a ruler to measure distances here. However, we decided that the underlying question -- whether the United States could really be approaching socialism -- is a fair one to analyze.
Here are some of the statistics to consider:
On the suggestion of several economists, we took the figures for government expenditures (which includes all levels of government) and divided them by the national gross domestic product for the years 1996 through 2010. For more than a decade, government spending as a percentage of GDP was quite stable, bouncing between 30.4 percent and 32.9 percent.
For the last few years, that percentage has indeed gone up -- to roughly 38 percent in both 2009 and 2010, which is within striking distance of the 40 percent Romney cited.
Bruce Bartlett, a former official in the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, told us at the time that Romney is "implying that the temporary increase in spending from (Obama’s stimulus bill) and the consequences of the recession are permanent," Bartlett said. Other economists noted that government’s footprint in GDP started growing in 2008 -- under Bush, not Obama -- because that’s when the recession began to hit.
And even if the government share of GDP is close to 40 percent, would that be a catastrophe for economic freedom? Most of the experts we spoke to scoffed at the suggestion.
"It has long been the conservative view that there is only so much freedom out there and if government grows in size then this necessarily diminishes freedom," Bartlett said. "Thus if spending is 25 percent of GDP, then we are three-quarters free, and if it grows to 40 percent, then we have lost 15 percent of our freedom and are only 60 percent free. This, of course, is nonsense, because it implies that the greatest freedom exists in anarchy … and that freedom is the only thing anyone cares about."
Here are a few other statistics to consider.
Taxes offer another measure of government involvement into the economy. According to the Tax Foundation, a business-backed group that studies tax policy, the total federal, state and local tax burden has been falling -- not rising -- in recent years. Every year, the group computes a national figure for all levels of taxation as a share of national income. The data shows that the tax burden has fallen modestly in recent years, from 31.2 percent in 2006 to 27.2 percent in 2011.
And as we concluded in a separate fact-check, the U.S. tax burden isn’t just hovering around a historical low -- it’s also low compared to other advanced industrialized nations. In a 2006 international comparison, 25 nations had a higher percentage of taxes compared to GDP than the U.S., while just four -- Mexico, Japan, Korea and Turkey -- had a lower percentage.
"One loses being a free market economy not so much, or not solely, because of the level of spending and taxation, but also by the level and reach of government regulation, and by the distortions to choices that arise through government policy -- think of tax rules that discourage some behaviors and investments in favor of others," said J.D. Foster, an economist with the conservative Heritage Foundation.
Tevi Troy, a senior fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute, said that bailouts for Wall Street and U.S. automakers (approved under Bush and continued under Obama) and the increasing government oversight over the health care sector (approved under Obama) represent nearly unprecedented willingness by the government to intervene in the economy. (Supporters, of course, counter that all but the health care intervention were intended to be temporary and came in response to a dire situation.)
However, there’s strong evidence undercutting Romney's claim that comes from, of all places, the conservative Heritage Foundation.
Heritage published an economic freedom index for 2011-- an international ranking of nations using a combination of 10 types of statistics, covering business freedom, trade freedom, fiscal freedom, government spending, monetary freedom, investment freedom, financial freedom, property rights, freedom from corruption and labor freedom.
Certainly, different groups could measure freedom differently. But let’s look at what Heritage concluded.
The U.S. ranked ninth out of 179 nations on the list, with a score that placed it near the top of the "mostly free" category. The only nations to be considered more "free" than the U.S. were, in descending order, Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, Switzerland, Canada, Ireland, and Denmark.
If the results of this study -- which, we’ll remind readers, was produced by a staunchly conservative think tank -- suggest that the U.S. is on the verge of socialism, then Lenin must be partying in his mauseoleum. For the U.S. to fall into the "mostly unfree" category, which is only the third-lowest category in the study, it would have to drop a whopping 83 slots, to a perch below such nations as Albania, Rwanda and Kazakhstan.
We did hear one argument that provided a measure of support for Romney’s position -- but only in a backhanded way.
Eugene Steuerle, an economist with the Urban Institute, a think tank that does economic and social policy research, said Romney’s comparison is imperfect because over the past century, there really hasn’t been a golden age in which the economy was genuinely unfettered, so the U.S. really couldn't be inching away from such an age.
"We’ve been a mixed economy for a long time," Steuerle said. "The ‘free market’ is a somewhat vague term. Technically, a Federal Reserve system and an antitrust division of the Justice Department interfere with a totally free market economy, yet they may promote a competitive economy."
It’s true that the government’s footprint on spending has grown over the past few years, due in large part to the recession. But while the statistics show that the government continues to have a large influence on the economy, there is little indication that the government’s role has risen dramatically enough over the past few years to threaten the kind of free market that the U.S. has operated under in recent decades. And international comparisons show that the U.S. ranks low in both total tax burden and high in economic freedom -- at least as measured by a prominent conservative think tank.
Last June and August, we found this claim to merit a Pants on Fire. Nothing has changed our view. We rate Romney's statement Pants on Fire.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The quote we used from Tevi Troy was made on June 2, 2011. After this article was published, we learned that Troy subsequently joined the Romney campaign as an adviser, according to POLITICO.