By George Leef
Sometimes I think about what America was like when my grandfather was young. In 1908, when he was 22, he started a business that, I’m happy to say, thrives to this day. He was the son of Swedish immigrants and started with nothing but some mechanical know-how and a good entrepreneurial idea.
Stories like his were very common in the America of a century ago. Millions of ambitious immigrants flooded into the US because its governmental system and culture were conducive to productivity and innovation. The people overwhelmingly expected to succeed or fail on their own efforts. Almost nobody thought he had a right to live at the expense of others, or had any right to dictate how others must act or what they must believe.
Moreover, the legal system protected Americans’ rights to life, liberty, and property. Theft was illegal. Acts of coercion were illegal. If someone wanted your money, he could only ask for it and had to take “no” for an answer. If someone wanted you to join a labor union, he could ask, but you were perfectly free to decline.
In those days, there were no officious bureaucrats dictating what people could and couldn’t do in their businesses. Taxes were low. At all levels, government consumed less than ten percent of the GDP. Therefore, nearly all of America’s resources of labor and materials were under the direction of the market’s profit and loss system. Profits signaled where more investment would pay off; losses quickly put an end to ill-conceived ventures.
And – crucially – government had almost no power to reward special interest groups. It did interfere with international trade to benefit domestic producers, but aside from that, government stuck closely to the precepts of laissez-faire.
The result was tremendous output of goods and services, along with innovation that propelled economic expansion at an accelerating pace. America was all about work, a point that Alexis de Tocqueville commented on in his book Democracy in America. Compared with his native France, where guilds and regulations and the high cost of government acted as a brake on the economy, in America he saw boundless energy.
Today’s America is a very different country than the one my grandfather knew. Governments absorb roughly half of the GDP. There are innumerable laws and regulations governing our lives – more than anyone could possibly read, much less understand. There are also legions of bureaucrats who are eager to fine and punish anyone who knowingly or unknowingly violates one of those laws or regulations. Governmental licenses are frequently required before an individual is allowed to go into business or a trade and official permission must often be sought before employing an innovation.
Today, government has ample power to reward special interest groups with subsidies or other favors, which are avidly sought.
Great numbers of people now hold jobs that entail no production of goods or services, but frequently obstruct such production by enforcing the laws and regulations that get in the way of efficiency and entrepreneurship. Those jobs often pay very well and are also avidly sought.
And instead of looking to their own efforts to solve problems, Americans now want government to step in. Pleading for government to raise your income or provide you with medical care or help you through college is now the default mode for most of the people. They don’t mind at all that what they demand can only come at the expense of others because they’ve been taught that whatever is done democratically is all right.
As a result of this great philosophical change, in America today we have a preponderance of Takers over Makers. The Takers consume the taxes paid by the Makers and many of them have jobs that give them power over others since they are paid to enforce the rapidly multiplying number of rules and regulations. Moreover, the Takers exhibit a sense of superiority over the Makers, based on their idea that it is more noble to work for “the public interest” than to work in the morally dubious world of profit-seeking enterprise.
This dramatic change in the dominant ethos of America couldn’t have happened without the persistence of people who were frustrated by the America of the Founders, with its principles of limited government, individual liberty, and the rule of law. They disliked the “chaos” of capitalism, believing that a scientifically managed economy would be much better, shorn of unseemly competition for profits and huge inequalities between rich and poor. They called themselves “progressives” and told people that if they had control, they would transform the country for the better.
The odd thing about “progressivism,” however, is that it is actually regressive. It takes us back to earlier social and economic arrangements that depended upon top-down control by elites who were sure they knew how to run things. Progressivism resembles feudalism, where a few nobles dictate to everyone else how to live and work, supposedly for the overall good of society. Freedom was allowed only insofar as it didn’t threaten to disturb the well-crafted order.
And while I’m on the subject of the perversion of language, I think it’s important to note that while the people who insist on social and economic control are often called “liberals,” they are the very opposite of that. They are authoritarians. True liberals want to liberate people from top-down systems of domination — Adam Smith for example. Let’s not call the likes of Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, and other politicians who clamor for ever-expanding government “liberals.” A better term would be “statists.”
The statists have been extraordinarily successful in changing America’s philosophy. Over the last century and especially from the New Deal on, they managed to turn much of the country away from the individualistic, Golden Rule philosophy that used to prevail, and inculcated a collectivist philosophy. Under the old philosophy, people thought that they were responsible for themselves; many wouldn’t accept government welfare during the Depression, thinking it wrong and shameful to live at the expense of others. Several generations later, a great many Americans see nothing wrong with seeking government money or other favors.
Since the New Deal, government at all levels has expanded enormously and there’s a huge momentum behind it. Takers now outnumber Makers. The sphere of liberty has been steadily shrinking as government power has grown. More of our earnings are seized in taxes. Increasingly, we are only allowed to use our property as officials will allow. Countless regulations hem in anyone who attempts to engage in business.
All of that has been building up for decades, but recently the Takers have launched new offensives against American traditions. They aren’t content merely to siphon off some of the wealth produced by the free market, but want to obliterate the market with a “Great Reset” that means full-fledged socialism. And they now see dissent from their visions as morally illegitimate and thus have declared war on freedom of speech.
Looking at the opposing sides, the Takers currently have the White House, Congress, and the vast federal bureaucracy. They can spend any amount of money to buy support from voters.
They control education from top to bottom. Starting in grade school, most students are fed a diet of statist ideas about society, the economy, the environment, American history, race, gender, and anything else that will shape their beliefs toward the beneficence of government and the frightfulness of liberty.
The Takers also control most of the media. With but a few exceptions, the media covers everything with the goal of slanting the story to make government look good and freedom or its defenders look bad. Alleged market failures will be trumpeted while clear government failures will be ignored.
And in philanthropy, foundations that support leftist ideas have about five times the resources of those that support free markets and voluntarism.
It seems like an unfair fight, leading one to wonder about the future. If the trend towards ever-growing government can’t be stopped, what will the US be like in the future? The result of loss of freedom anywhere is the same: declining prosperity accompanied by increasing strife, as groups fight to have government give them a bigger slice of the shrinking pie.
The US is heading toward that cliff at high speed. Is there a chance to avoid the Takers’ dream of omnipotent government? Can we regain the freedom we’ve lost?
Those questions are at the heart of my novel The Awakening of Jennifer Van Arsdale.
Jon Sanders recently wrote a perceptive review of the book, calling it “subtly optimistic.” He’s right. I am subtly optimistic about the future. For all the heavyweight advantages the Takers have, the tide seems to have turned.
For one thing, the grip the Takers have had on education is loosening. Many parents have realized during the COVID school closures that they can do much better for their children outside of the politicized system of government schools. Many others have learned about the appalling, divisive, manipulative curricula that “woke” teachers and administrators have smuggled in and are fighting back.
Higher education is also starting to fade as Americans realize that the college degree, long touted as a sure-fire investment, is often a waste of time and money. Fewer students attending college means fewer students subjected to ideological hectoring. And as revenues fall, schools will have to cut the worst performing departments. Accounting stays, Gender Studies goes.
Even more significant is the decline in trust in government. First the Takers managed to break down the Constitution’s limits on government power and then they managed to convince a high percentage of the people that such power was nothing to worry about. It was nothing to worry about, they said, because government officials are public servants, motivated to do what is in the public interest. Democracy ensures that government will do the right thing – or so the tale went. Generations of young Americans were taught to believe in government but to fear capitalism.
Wonderfully, that trust has greatly eroded. More than anything else, what caused it to erode was the way government officials reacted to COVID. Rather than “following the science,” they followed their authoritarian instincts, demanding lockdowns, business closures (except for those they deemed “essential”), mask and vaccine mandates, school closures, and an end to social gatherings (unless they were for some leftist-approved purpose, like BLM protests). Instead of listening to critics, they smeared and tried to silence them. They refuse to admit making any errors, much less having wrought vast harm upon millions of the people they supposedly serve.
Nothing has done more to damage the big government “brand” than COVID. The curtain has been pulled aside so the people can see how arrogant and hypocritical our public elites are.
This gives those of us who favor a return to the liberal America of my grandfather’s time a tremendous opportunity. George Washington wisely wrote that “Government is not reason; it is not eloquence; it is force.” For the last two years, millions of people have learned how correct that statement is, as government officials have ruined their lives. With so many more Americans now looking upon government as a malefactor, the iron is hot.
The intellectual support for the leftist worldview is a house of cards. It depends on people blindly accepting clichés such as that government spending stimulates the economy, that inflation is caused by the greed of businessmen, that there would be widespread illiteracy if it weren’t for government schools, that minimum wage laws don’t lead to unemployment, that government officials are solely motivated by a desire to serve the common good, that gun control laws reduce crime, and more. Those notions are at odds with reality and any brush with reality is apt to cause the house of cards to tumble. (That’s what happens to Jennifer Van Arsdale in my book.)
It won’t be enough just to toss the Democrats out of office. That has happened before and the growth of our governmental leviathan was barely slowed.
What we need to do is to restore the spirit of liberty that used to animate America. Doing so will mean persuading every open-minded person that a free society, one where people may do anything that’s peaceful, is best for everyone. The free, truly liberal society is the one that maximizes prosperity, innovation, and harmony. On the other hand, a controlled society ensures declining living standards, less innovation, and conflict as groups squabble for government favors.
Millions of Americans know that government power made them worse off during COVID and this gives us the opening to persuade them that it isn’t just that the COVID tyranny was bad, but that the whole agenda of the Taking cabal is bad. The government is littered with people like Dr. Fauci.
It’s not too late for a pro-liberty counterattack. The authoritarian position has always been weak intellectually and now it’s weak politically.
Originally published by the American Institute for Economic Research. Republished with permission under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.