May 15, 2010
Let It Burn
For the past hundred years, America has been slowly moving away from the principles of its founding. The ideals of liberty, individual achievement, limited government, and the equality of opportunity have been slowly supplanted by calls for security, class warfare, excessive regulation, and the equality of outcome. The passage of stimulus acts, bailouts, government takeovers of two U.S. automakers, and the health care overhaul prove that our movement away from 1776 has accelerated.
Passage of the health care bill has sparked a revival of small-government thinking, causing many to predict significant Republican gains in Congress this fall. But despite some short-term success, this small-government revival is doomed to fail. The depressing truth is that the only way to regain the full measure of those freedoms proclaimed in our Founding Documents is for our current federal government to completely collapse under the weight of its own excesses.
Often, one carefully articulated analogy can succinctly convey a very complex idea. In our case, that analogy is addiction. Over the past hundred years, we have slowly allowed a monstrous system of dependence to develop until nearly every citizen relies upon government money, and thus is an addict. This has come about because the hard logic of the Founders has been replaced by the seductive ease of emotional arguments. All too often, the debate is over not if government should do something, but what it should do. This almost imperceptible shift in our national philosophy is a manifestation of our addiction.
While the citizen-addict is hooked on government largesse, the politician-addict is hooked on something far more sinister: power. Their drug is available in Washington, D.C. Just as a dealer will go to any length to continue selling his wares, politicians will stop at nothing to retain their power. These two groups of addicts are locked in mutual co-dependence, where the politician-addict seeking re-election buys off the citizen-addict with more spending. Then the citizen-addict, seeking yet another free lunch from Washington, reelects the politician-addict. The result is endless, ever-expanding government programs and our current fiscal nightmare.
The persistence of these programs has nothing to do with their success. They continue because we are more concerned that our actions are deemed compassionate than whether our programs are actually successful. If we truly wanted to help people save for retirement, we would not establish a program with a meager 1.23% rate of return while simultaneously supporting a monetary policy of systematic inflation. Yet these and other ineffective or even counterproductive programs continue. Such willful blindness to economic reality cannot be sustained indefinitely. The Congressional Budget Office has recently stated that our national debt will constitute 90% of our gross domestic product -- that is 20.3 trillion dollars -- in just ten years. What is even more shocking is that these debt numbers do not include the unfunded liabilities of Medicare and Social Security, which currently rest at 107 trillion dollars. Sadly, this trend cannot be stopped.
If Republicans take control of the House and Senate, and if they repeal the health care bill, then they will not be able (or likely even try) to reform Medicare or Social Security. These programs alone will bankrupt our nation. Yet they are untouchable because a large number of Americans have come to depend upon these benefits. They have become unknowingly hooked. Senior citizens have organized their financial futures around the twin promises of Social Security and Medicare and will naturally resist any change to either. George W. Bush knew this when he attempted his overhaul of Social Security. That is why his plan to privatize retirement savings was voluntary and would have excluded those over 55. Nevertheless, it was easy for the politician-addicts to scare the citizen-addicts, and his plan was defeated.
"They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty or safety." This quote by Ben Franklin is often used by civil libertarians in opposition to government security programs such as the Patriot Act. But this sentiment is equally applicable to those who would give up economic liberty to obtain economic safety. The economic attitude of the nation has shifted. We are no longer a nation of self-sufficient, rugged individualists; we are now a nation of addicts, hooked on a politician's promises of economic safety.
This is why America is lost. Too many Americans are hooked for us to return to a sound economic footing via the normal political processes. Our efforts to moderate the most radical agendas -- welfare reform, for example -- serve only to delay the inevitable. In fact, many of those reforms are quietly undermined as the slow march towards collapse continues. We cannot alter our current trajectory; expansive government, greater entitlements, and ever-increasing taxes are our fate. Attempts by responsible citizens at reform will be only partially successful, not changing the fundamentals of our dilemma.
The addict analogy carries through to recovery. For most addicts, recovery can begin only once they have descended so far in their addiction that they lose everything, a process often called "hitting bottom." Sometimes there is no recovery, and hitting bottom means death. But for others, hitting bottom is a tremendous learning experience, and they emerge as better people. America is addicted. The decline has begun, and now our nation must hit bottom.
Detoxing America will cause social, political, and economic strife of a sort unimaginable, and yet it is a process we must endure. Hitting bottom is our only hope for a national rehabilitation. It is our only chance for a true reacquaintance with those principles that made this the greatest nation on earth: liberty, individual achievement, limited government, and the equality of opportunity.
Demosthenes is a lawyer whose current employment prohibits taking a public position on political issues. E-mail correspondence may be sent here.