Thomas Jefferson wrote, “Were we directed from Washington when to sow and when to reap, we should soon want bread.” Our founders knew that ordinary citizens, when allowed their own motivations and institutions, are more adaptable, innovative and productive than even our wisest politicians could imagine or improve. So our constitutions, state and federal, weren’t written as documents of government empowerment. They are contracts of limitation; a leash against governments’ historical tendency to get loose and hurt those that government is supposed to protect.
Governments are good at only a few, albeit formidable tasks; and then only if properly restrained. If we ask more of government, we’ll get less. What we’ve come to call, “government services,” or programs that rob Peter to pay Paul, can’t work as well as the infinite and dynamic range of citizen alternatives.
Every day, our merchants display a new and endless supply of things like espresso beans, hand-made bathroom tiles, leather-lined cars, -even things like energy saving light bulbs and recycled paper in aisle after aisle of stocked shelves. When governments attempt such a cornucopia, people wait in line for bad shoes that don’t fit.
Governments can’t command bicycle mechanics to invent airplanes, or decree that college kids will invent a computer in a garage. Government didn’t invent schools, soup kitchens or voluntary service clubs. Government regulations didn’t make this nation great; free citizens did that. The economist Ludwig von Mises wrote, “Progress is precisely that which the rules and regulations did not foresee.”
Not all government programs are as bad as slavery or the segregating Jim Crow laws, of course. And the “progressive” programs that swept away the Indians and stole property from citizens for the benefit of railroad barons aren’t the finest examples either. But even government’s best-intended schemes have driven medical costs skyward, and quality downward. When government tries to stimulate one industry, it squeezes out others. Some of our most kindly politicians have created social castes and hostile subcultures with their misguided good intentions.
I’ll just come out and say it: according to our government’s statistics, and as analyzed by groups as different as the Cato and Preservation Institutes, our Goose is Cooked. Like it or not, we are swirling toward the drainpipes of history as our leaders point to the abyss and cry, “forward ho!”
American gross domestic product and expenditures per capita, adjusted for inflation, have doubled since 1960. Yet for all our apparent wealth, we’re working harder and longer for less and less. Healthcare spending has gone from about 5% of the GDP in 1960 to over 16% today, much more per capita than any other nation. But despite better technology, our stratified life expectancies, infant and maternal mortality rates, and communicable disease controls are embarrassing. In 1950, Americans averaged about $1700 per student/year in adjusted dollars, yet public education was excellent. We spend over $7000 per student/year now, or over 50% more than other industrialized nations. I need say no more about the quality of our government-run schools.
Certainly, our leaders didn’t mean to cause us harm any more than they meant to paint themselves into a financial corner. But with all that’s obviously unraveling around us, I think it’s odd that so many Americans are squawking like Chicken Little now that our egg-faced leaders have confessed that government programs must be cut. Many are even saying that tax increases, to prop up a few more government services, would be a good “compromise” as we get less and less for our money. That’s nuts.
We have been presented with a great opportunity to prove our civic mettle. We can still show the world that liberty still works. Churches and other voluntary associations can fill the gaps in charity and building projects. With as much as we pay for political campaigns, I know we can raise money for scholarships, arts programs and day camps.
For decades now, Libertarians, Jeffersonian Democrats and Barry Goldwater Republicans have advocated such simple, proven civic reforms. Now’s the time.
In fact, it’s now…or never again.
Our government tapeworm has been eating away our civic awareness, industrious spirit and social organizations long enough. Excising these government dysfunctions doesn’t mean doing without anything. It means that perhaps at last our government will focus on its core business, and stay out of ours. It means that now we’ll be free to assess our own priorities, pay for our own causes, and do what Americans were once known for around the world: doing things better.