America faces a new culture war.
This is not the culture war of the 1990s. It is not a fight over guns, gays or abortion. Those old battles have been eclipsed by a new struggle between two competing visions of the country’s future. In one, America will continue to be an exceptional nation organized around the principles of free enterprise — limited government, a reliance on entrepreneurship and rewards determined by market forces. In the other, America will move toward European-style statism grounded in expanding bureaucracies, a managed economy and large-scale income redistribution. These visions are not reconcilable. We must choose.
It is not at all clear which side will prevail. The forces of big government are entrenched and enjoy the full arsenal of the administration’s money and influence. Our leaders in Washington, aided by the unprecedented economic crisis of recent years and the panic it induced, have seized the moment to introduce breathtaking expansions of state power in huge swaths of the economy, from the health-care takeover to the financial regulatory bill that the Senate approved Thursday. If these forces continue to prevail, America will cease to be a free enterprise nation.
I call this a culture war because free enterprise has been integral to American culture from the beginning, and it still lies at the core of our history and character. “A wise and frugal government,” Thomas Jefferson declared in his first inaugural address in 1801, “which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government.” He later warned: “To take from one, because it is thought that his own industry and that of his fathers has acquired too much, in order to spare to others, who, or whose fathers, have not exercised equal industry and skill, is to violate arbitrarily the first principle of association, the guarantee to every one of a free exercise of his industry and the fruits acquired by it.” In other words, beware government’s economic control, and woe betide the redistributors.
Now, as then, entrepreneurship can flourish only in a culture where individuals are willing to innovate and exert leadership; where people enjoy the rewards and face the consequences of their decisions; and where we can gamble the security of the status quo for a chance of future success.
Yet, in his commencement address at Arizona State University on May 13, 2009, President Obama warned against precisely such impulses: “You’re taught to chase after all the usual brass rings; you try to be on this “who’s who” list or that Top 100 list; you chase after the big money and you figure out how big your corner office is; you worry about whether you have a fancy enough title or a fancy enough car. That’s the message that’s sent each and every day, or has been in our culture for far too long — that through material possessions, through a ruthless competition pursued only on your own behalf — that’s how you will measure success.” Such ambition, he cautioned, “may lead you to compromise your values and your principles.”
I appreciate the sentiment that money does not buy happiness. But for the president of the United States to actively warn young adults away from economic ambition is remarkable. And he makes clear that he seeks to change our culture. …
[T]he real tipping point was the financial crisis, which began in 2008. The meltdown presented a golden opportunity for the 30 percent coalition to attack free enterprise openly and remake America in its own image.
And it seized that opportunity. While Republicans had no convincing explanation for the crisis, seemed responsible for it and had no obvious plans to fix it, the statists offered a full and compelling narrative. Ordinary Americans were not to blame for the financial collapse, nor was government. The real culprits were Wall Street and the Bush administration, which had gutted the regulatory system that was supposed to keep banks in line.
The solution was obvious: Vote for a new order to expand the powers of government to rein in the dangerous excesses of capitalism.
It was a convincing story. For a lot of panicky Americans, the prospect of a paternalistic government rescuing the nation from crisis seemed appealing as stock markets and home prices spiraled downward. According to this narrative, government was at fault in just one way: It wasn’t big enough. If only there had been more regulators watching the banks more closely, the case went, the economy wouldn’t have collapsed.
Yet in truth, it was government housing policy that was at the root of the crisis. Moreover, the financial sector — where the crisis began and where it has had the most serious impact — is already one of the most regulated parts of our economy. The chaos happened despite an extensive, intrusive regulatory framework, not because such a framework didn’t exist.
More government — including a super-empowered Federal Reserve, a consumer protection watchdog and greater state powers to wind down financial firms and police market risks — does not mean we will be safe. On the contrary, such changes would give us a false sense of security, especially when Washington, a primary culprit in the crisis, is creating and implementing the new rules.
The statist narrative also held that only massive deficit spending could restore economic growth. “If nothing is done, this recession could linger for years,” Obama warned a few days before taking office. “Only government can provide the short-term boost necessary to lift us from a recession this deep and severe. Only government can break the cycle that is crippling our economy.”
This proposition is as expensive as it is false. Recessions can and do end without the kind of stimulus we experienced, and attempts to shore up the economy with huge public spending often do little to improve matters and instead chain future generations with debt.