Brandon Crocker is Director of Asset Management for a real estate development and management company in San Diego.
Over the years, many economists and philosophers have pondered the question posed by Joseph Schumpeter, “Can capitalism survive?” With the collapse of socialism in Eastern Europe, one would think that the prospects are favorable. Yet capitalism (at least free market capitalism) is under fresh assault in the United States. And the implications of this assault stretch far beyond our mere economic well-being.
Recently, a good deal of debate has started on such issues as government control over the health-care industry, national industrial policy, and government-mandated employee benefits. Most of the debate centers on questions of efficacy and implementation. While many have argued that a more active government will harm the economy, few Americans are taking issue with the basic premise that the federal government ought to be authorized to do all of these things.
Freedom has been a hallmark of American nationhood since the founding. Yet today it is difficult to find many people who understand and embrace the concept. As the discussions of federal policy indicate, freedom lags well behind such material considerations as less expensive health care, job security, and a growing economy in the constellation of concerns of most Americans. What was for a long time the defining word of the American spirit now is freely bargained away by the American people in exchange for promises of federal paternalism. Such are the political dynamics of the modern welfare state.
Since the New Deal programs of the 1930s, Americans have increasingly looked to government to improve or safeguard their economic positions. Every year new legislation reduces the freedom of some in order to provide benefits to others. It is now hardly questioned that wealth should be redistributed from the successful to the unsuccessful, and that the government should have a strong role in the regulation of commerce.
Seemingly paradoxically, however, Americans still guard freedom in their “personal” spheres quite jealously. They still want to be able to “do what we want to” in their private lives. Increasingly, Americans don’t even want people to be able to disapprove of their lifestyles, let alone dictate them. (The advocates of this position don’t seem to realize the ominous implications to personal freedom implied by this view.) Those who would try to “impose their morality” on others are demonized in the popular culture, and growing numbers of Americans count unrestricted access to abortion, for example, as a fundamental right. Americans, like children, want some benefactor to take care of their needs and problems, but leave them alone to act as they please.
But there really is no paradox demonstrated in demanding that government provide goods while vigorously attacking government intrusion into “personal” matters. Americans are asking for an unhindered road to personal self-fulfillment, and a government empowered to help them through any difficulties which may arise. This is the attitude we expect from children and others who have been shielded from the full responsibilities of life, and it is symptomatic of a people with a heritage of freedom who have been corrupted by an expanding welfare state.
Economic Controls Are People Controls
When discussing government intervention in the economy, it is prudent to remember that a nation’s economy is nothing more than the decisions of individuals as to what to produce and what to consume. Therefore, a government-controlled economy necessarily means government-controlled people. The greater the control the government has in the economy, the smaller the sphere of personal freedom. Whenever we demand that government intervene to give us some benefit, we are simultaneously demanding that government intervene to deprive someone else of some freedom. Even if only the personal freedoms of others are directly affected by our demands, we reduce the barriers of tradition and attitude that protect our own freedoms, as well.
Punitive taxes on tobacco and alcohol are an attack on personal freedom disguised by the rhetoric of “solving the health-care crisis.” These new taxes are being justified on the grounds that smoking and drinking cause health problems which put a strain on health-care resources. If we deem this proper justification have we not acquiesced to the proposal that government can and should regulate all sorts of personal choices? If putting special taxes on (or even outlawing) smoking and drinking is fine, what about other potentially unhealthy activities like hang-gliding, high school football, or eating red meat? Will all our individual rights that could conceivably affect health-care costs be subject to majority rule? Or, having turned over to government the power and responsibility to maintain and pay for our health-care system, will our individual rights have even that much protection?
Is this far-fetched hyperbole? One would like to think so. But then again, how many of the enlightened liberals of the 1930s thought that Mao’s “land reforms” would lead to the state dictating (through economic “incentives” and coerced abortions) how many children families could have? How many socialist utopians of the 1960s thought that a People’s Republic (with free health care and job security) like Czechoslovakia could forcibly relocate the inhabitants of an entire city so that government-controlled utility providers could have access to coal deposits? And how many of our fathers and mothers would have thought that in the United States of America, small businesses could be sued out of existence because their work forces did not closely enough match the ethnic and sexual makeups of the community? The United States has a long tradition of freedom, as well as some still functioning constitutional safeguards. But it is sobering to step back and look at just how far we have traveled over the last 75 years.
Like children, Americans will sooner or later discover that they cannot rely on some authority to take care of them and still be free. It is a truism that with freedom comes responsibility. It is also true that freedom only lasts if people take responsibility for their activities and reject the premise that their lives should be made easier at the expense of other people’s freedom.
History clearly shows that it is harder to win back freedoms than to give them away. Governments rarely agree to relinquish power, and groups which have come to depend on government-provided largess will join in opposition to any such movements. So it is important that all who can try to awaken their fellow citizens to their folly, or soon it won’t be Schumpeter’s question we’ll be pondering, but rather the one posed by Francis Scott Key: “Oh, say does that star spangled banner yet wave, o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?”