Are we still the people we once imagined ourselves to be?
America was founded on a belief in freedom and individualism. Many of immigrants came here to escape persecution. Sadly, concurrently many people were also brought here under compulsion (African slaves) or treated with treachery and violence (native Americans) by the very same people who sought to escape such conditions in the Old World. Despite being a land of contradictions, we have also been a country of evolving egalitarianism and opportunity.
National mythology is the epic saga that binds us together. It is not “history,” rather it is the inspiring narrative about the nation’s past. It serves as a collective symbol and affirmation of our values and national principles. The operative terms are “evolving,” “free” and “individual.”
These ideas are captured in libertarianism: “a political and social philosophy that promotes individual rights, civil liberties, democracy, and free enterprise.” This is the aspirational vision of what my America stands for. Our story has been the saga of evolution from its fledgling and flawed start to a better but still imperfect state today.
To promote those, the best course for our country is to limit the size of government and give as much freedom of choice and action to the individual. This includes both personal and financial considerations. The rules and regulations constraining our actions should be minimized consistent with good order and security for the community and country. Individuals should decide how to optimize their own happiness. Limit taxes both to maximize the wealth of the individual (give them as much freedom to choose how to spend their money) and minimize the resources allocated to government bureaucracy (to limit the size and scope of their authority over us).
Is this notion even possible in today’s world?
First, individual freedom is a two-edged sword. If you get the liberty of action, you also assume responsibility for the outcomes. If you spend your money frivolously, it is still up to you to feed, clothe and house yourself. You do not get the right to “be free” and expect a system to compensate for your poor decisions. I am not sanguine that we can accept this relationship.
We have become addicted to the “bailout.” The past quarter century has been marked by an ever-increasing intervention by government when “bad” things happen in the private sector. Government bailouts of financial institutions deemed “to big to fail” set a dreadful precedent (although this type of policy has been around for over a century). These institutions received a significant opportunity when the Glass-Stegall act was revoked in 1999 which allowed the wall between investment and retail banking to crumble. Essentially banks used that opening to “speculate” putting themselves (and our deposits) at risk then expected the government to fix their problems when things turned sour. Reward is predicated on risk-taking. They got the upside profit and pawned the downside loss off on the public.
We have buffered individual choices from the realities of a tough world. Someone who builds a house on the water now expects the “collective” (FEMA or some other agency) to (literally) bail them out in a natural disaster. Likewise, if I fail to save, the government should not only provide a “safety net,” it should outright support me in my retirement. The logical difficult outcomes of poor life choices are no longer a personal responsibility.
We want someone else to “de-risk” our environment. Rather than forcing the individual and the private sector to face the consequences of their actions, the government now aims to minimize their liability/exposure by mitigating the possibility of failure.
Are we more safe and secure today? Perhaps yes, when compared to the early days of our colonial heritage. Are some government regulatory actions successful (Clean Water Act for instance)? Yes, to a point. The problem is that rules and constraints (even those designed to be temporary) never seem to retreat. Regulations always become more stringent. There is no reverse gear in governmental power. As Ronald Reagan once stated, “No government ever voluntarily reduces itself in size. Government programs, once launched, never disappear.” Fundamentally, the ever-encroaching nature of regulatory interference has not resulted in “better” society.
Perhaps we are more “comfortable” (on average); but what have we lost along the way?
I arrived in this region over thirty years ago and found a land of opportunity. Such is not the case today. Between financial regulations (a byproduct of the bailouts) and ever-more-stringent development ordinances and building codes, I doubt it would be possible to start from scratch and create the businesses I have. Certainly, something else would have opened up, but those specific operations that employed hundreds of people, facilitate growth for other businesses, and provided a living for my family would be foreclosed.
In the place of opportunity (to try and succeed or fail, then try again), we now want to make everyone equal (not give them an equal opportunity because that entails the possibility of failure and that is an anathema today).
We now demand that the life be “fair,” and are engineering a society on that premise. However, that is not how the world works (neither by God’s divine hand nor by nature’s evolutionary characteristics). Life can be wonderful, but it is often a harsh mistress.
Our place in the world is defined by who we choose to become (or at least that is how it should work). We do ourselves no favor when we mitigate the consequences of poor choices and make everyone a “winner.” Life is not a participatory sport; it is a hard-nosed competition. Societies that don’t play by those rules are ultimately destined to the “ash heap of history.”