Back in the 1980s, I would get very agitated when folks made excuses for brutal communist regimes by asserting that the United States also did bad things. This “moral equivalence” argument is now being recycled by Donald Trump, who basically excuses Putin’s brutality because America supposedly isn’t in any position to throw stones.
Here’s the interview, set to start at the point where Trump discusses Putin.
This is wrong. Absurdly wrong.
Though let’s start by acknowledging that the United States is far from perfect. Our history includes black eyes such as slavery, mistreatment of native populations, incomplete legal rights for women, internment of Japanese-Americans, Jim Crow laws, persecution of gays, and other sins.
Even today, we have plenty of bad policies that restrict human liberty, often exacerbated by examples of thuggish actions by government.
But, at the risk of sounding jingoistic and patriotic, the United States began with a wonderful set of ideals and our history largely reflects a struggle to extend those ideals to the entire population.
Now let’s look at Putin.
When I tweeted my column about Russia’s flat tax two days ago, I screwed up by making a joke about the Trump-Putin “bro-mance.” I got savaged on Twitter by people who accused me of somehow endorsing (or at least accepting) the many repressive policies that exist in Russia.
The silver lining to Trump’s disturbing interview is that it gives me an opportunity to make clear my disapproval of both Putin and the silly doctrine of moral equivalence.
With regards to Russia’s president, do we have any reason to believe that he is motivated by the principles of classical liberalism? Does anyone think he wants to make Russia a free society? That he respects human rights and the rule of law?
Heck, even Trump didn’t dispute the premise that he’s a killer.
Moreover, how can anyone believe in moral equivalence when there’s a huge gap between the United States and Russia on measures of liberty.
Consider, for instance, the Human Freedom Index. As you can see, the United States is far from perfect. We’re ranked #23 for overall freedom, #28 for personal freedom, and #16 for economic freedom.
But we look good compared to Russia, which is #115 for overall freedom, #110 for personal freedom, and #102 for economic freedom.
And the Freedom House rankings show an equally dramatic difference.
The United States has a score of 90 on a 0-100 scale, with the highest rating for political rights and civil liberties.
Russia, by contrast, only has a score of 22 and gets the next-to-last rating for political rights and civil liberties.
To conclude, some folks sometimes say the continuing imperfections in the United States mean that there’s only a “difference in degree” between us and Russia.
My response is that if the “difference in degree” is large, then you also have a “difference in kind.”
There is no moral equivalence.
P.S. On a separate topic, you won’t be surprised by this report from the Washington Times.
More than half of IRS employees found to have intentionally cheated on their taxes last year were allowed to keep their jobs, according to numbers released by the inspector general that suggest the agency is still reluctant to punish its own staffers for breaking tax laws.
Yet another example of hypocrisy in government. I’ve noted the IRS has thieving employees, incompetent employees, thuggish employees, brainless employees, protectionist employees, wasteful employees, and victimizing employees. Now it has slapped-on-the-hand employees.