As I think about the election in November, I can’t help but think about Matt Ridley and his outstanding book “The Rational Optimist – How Prosperity Evolves”. In it he chronicles the evolution of human society and demonstrates a perfect understanding of why nations fail:
“Empires, indeed governments generally, tend to be good things at first and bad things the longer they last. First they improve society’s ability to flourish by providing central services and removing impediments to trade and specialization”.
But then “governments gradually employ more and more ambitious elites who capture a greater and greater share of the society’s income by interfering more and more in people’s lives as they give themselves more and more rules to enforce, until they kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.
From Ancient Egypt to the Roman Empire to the Ming Dynasty to the Soviet Union, these and countless other entities collapsed under the weight of their own regulation, either from the state or the church.
One has to wonder where is the tipping point that harkens the descent of a nation into the chaos that inevitably leads to its end… and more importantly, where the United States is on that scale. If you imagine a spectrum with tyranny on the left and anarchy on the right, the Constitution of the United States was crafted so that the government be a fulcrum balancing the state between the two. It worked that way for a while.
For its first 125 years the government of the United States was largely reluctant to take over the lives of its citizens. Over the last century it has become far more enthusiastic in that pursuit, with a particular emphasis in the fifty years. As Ridley points out, this is not particularly unique among nations. The United States is unique however. It is the only nation that was established for the specific purpose of allowing its people to live in freedom. The Declaration of Independence clearly articulates that the rights of men are natural and are not bestowed by any government. The Constitution sought to codify limitations on the government’s ability to infringe on those rights.
As we all know, those Constitutional limits seem to resemble paper tigers more and more each day, from everything from Obamacare to ethanol mandates to eminent domain abuses. The question as it relates to November is, must the United States go the way of the Roman Empire or can it figure out how to save itself from the seemingly inevitable fate of states?
Rarely are voters presented with two so clearly different paths ahead. On the one hand you have Mitt Romney who is an unabashed fan of the markets and market solutions. While Romney may be tin eared in some respects – read RomneyCare – he has become an avowed advocate of government restraint. His selection of Paul Ryan demonstrates his intent to address the growth of government while that’s still possible.
While Romney may not have the libertarian leanings that many of us would like, he stands in stark contrast to the man he faces in November. Romney seeks to move the lever (the board that sits on the fulcrum) rightward to balance the scale of freedom closer towards the center, Barack Obama seeks to slam it to the left where government takes over every aspect of a citizen’s life and freedom and free markets become little more than a distant memory.
Not sure about that? A few points should demonstrate the truth of that statement.
More than one third of the American households receive income based welfare assistance from the United States government – that doesn’t even include Social Security! Barack Obama has actively sought to increase that proportion, including gutting the 1996 welfare reform that reduced welfare rolls by half, and embarking on an advertising campaign to increase food stamp rolls.
At the same time fully half the population pays no income taxes while the President suggests the rich are somehow taking advantage of the system. This despite the fact that the top 1% of income earners pay 37% of all income taxes yet take home only 17% of all income. At what point do the people in that 1% or 5% or 10% decide to take their money and play somewhere else? If just the top 10% of taxpayers emigrated, they would take with them 71% of income tax revenue.
Then there is the notion of success. The President famously told businessmen that “If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.” That gets to the core of what Barack Obama counts as success. To hammer the point home, a week later he held up General Motors as a stellar example of success, going so far as to suggest “Now I want to do the same thing with manufacturing jobs, not just in the auto industry, but in every industry.” Of course this success that Obama is so proud of was bought by pouring tens of billions of taxpayer’s dollars into the company.
Then there is the regulation. In his first three years in office Barack Obama issued 106 major regulations that will impact the economy by more than $100 million or more. This compares with 38 (a still too high number) by his predecessor. A President Obama not constrained by another reelection campaign will likely increase that number dramatically.
Whether in the form of the Ming Dynasty, 18th century France or modern Greece, Spain or California, history demonstrates clearly that when government grows to the point that it overwhelms the citizenry’s ability to operate with even the most basic level of freedom, particularly economic freedom, the house collapses. Romney was not my first choice for the next president, but at least he’s mostly committed to the notion of individual liberty and economic freedom. Compare that to the cleptocratic and authoritarian Obama and the choice is simple. One wonders if the Romans had the opportunity in 180 AD would they have been smart enough to put someone other than Commodus on the throne. We are at that same point in 2012. The difference is, we have a choice. The question is, will voters understand what’s at stake when they walk into the booth in November?