November 19th, 2011 // 2:15 pm @ Oliver DeMille
There is a truly amazing debate happening right now in the United States. It would actually be comical if it weren’t so potentially tragic for America’s future. This debate is not any—or all—of the Republican Presidential Debates. Nor is it some formal debate taking place on television, the Internet or a university campus.
It is a cultural debate, a large-scale argument playing out in millions of discussions online, thousands of opinions and rants from the talking heads in the media, and – most dramatically – fought indirectly between the Tea Partiers and the Occupy Wall Street crowds.
Most of this debate is taking place in emotional and passionately charged ways, rather than in clear, concise intellectual dialog. Still, a quick look at the two intellectual arguments is instructive.
Some say that the divide between the rich and the rest is increasing each year. More to the point, the structural division between the upper classes and the other classes is becoming less porous and less elastic. Social mobility—which was once the American keynote—is steadily eroding.
A majority of Americans now feel that their children will have a lower standard of living than they did; many feel that the rising generation in China will have more opportunity than our American youth. The American Dream is over in this view, and things seem likely to get worse before they get better—if they ever get better.
I wrote about this reality a few years ago in my book The Coming Aristocracy, and it remains one of the most significant challenges of our time. It is presently a major catalyst of current trends and of our evolving future. Unless things change direction, an aristocracy is coming to America. Indeed, it is already almost entrenched.
In a typical debate, the opposing view would argue that such a divide is not occurring, or that it is a good thing for America – or even that it is a minor trend that will be offset by some larger reality. But this is no typical debate. In an interesting twist, all sides of the current amazing debate accept this truth—the divide between the rich and the rest is real, and it is a major challenge in our century.
The debate is about how to fix this problem.
One side of the debate wants government to solve the problems, the other side wants government to get out of the way so the people can resolve things. It’s More Government against More Free Enterprise.
The More Government side argues for higher taxes, more government relief, increased government spending, more government jobs programs, increased government training options, improved government education, and more regulations. It is summed up in the title of Thomas Frank’s recent article in Harpers: “More Government, Please!”
In contrast, the More Free Enterprise side promotes fewer government regulations, reduced or at least no hikes in taxation, lower corporate rates to boost America’s competitiveness in the world economy in the, decreased government spending, less government borrowing and printing of money, and smaller government.
This side wants the era of big government to truly, finally, be over,[i] or, at the very least, for us to realize that our government must stop shutting down or undermining the free enterprise incentives that are the basis of all historical prosperity and freedom.
The More Government side tries to convince the nation that the Free Enterprise side “Hates Government,” or “Hates the Poor.” Too many on the Free Enterprise side characterize the ideas of the More Government side as “Hating Freedom” or “Hating Small Business.” Both of these characterizations are flawed.
Many who argue mainly for government solutions also feel deeply the need for government to be checked and balanced, while many who support answers mainly by private enterprise feel great pride and trust in the potential for good by our government and consider its success vital to society. Most people on both sides care about freedom and also want to help the underprivileged and struggling. Most people on both sides want government and business to be successful. Most people from both sides want the government to be fiscally responsible. They just have an honest disagreement about the best way to do these things.
Some want to label one side of the debate Democratic and the other Republican, but this simply isn’t the case. Government spending, government programs, and the regulatory load increased drastically—drastically!—under the Republican administrations of Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford, Bush and Bush and also under the Democratic leadership F. Roosevelt, Johnson, Carter, Clinton and Obama. Note that these things also increased under Truman, Kennedy and Reagan, but at least these three presidents made a loud and energetic case for proper limits on government. In short, both political parties have proven effective supporters of the More Government side of the debate.
The one big difference, the most fundamental divide, between the More Government and More Free Enterprise sides is this: one believes we need more government force right now, the other that we need more freedom and incentives right now.
For this reason, I am on the side of free enterprise.
The government has a vital role to play in our society. Without it, none of our freedoms will last. But government power must be wisely limited, and the best articulation of the right level of limits on our government is found in the U.S. Constitution. More to the point, the government today may or may not be too big, but its massive regulatory load and anti-business policies are clearly hurting the economy and fueling an increased class divide in society. They are keeping our economy down because they don’t incentive economic innovation or growth.
The reason I call this debate “amazing” is simple: It is both surprising and indeed shocking that anyone who has read history can believe that force is a more effective way to freedom than free incentives. One side of this debate seems committed to using government force to fix our economic problems, even though all through history free economies, minimal regulation and limited governments have consistently been the forerunners and partners of economic success and high economic mobility.
It is simply amazing that we still haven’t figured this out. Perhaps the most astonishing thing about this debate is that anyone still argues that more government force in our current model will spread more freedom, prosperity, or social mobility. There is no historical evidence for this, and overwhelming evidence of the opposite.
Freedom works. Why is anyone arguing that we give more support to government force? If the Republican Presidential Debates, and the ongoing responses from the White House, are about real solutions, they will be all about the government effectively incentivizing free enterprise. If the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street events are about real solutions, they’ll promote ways to more effectively incentive free enterprise.
As long as government force is the dominant factor in our economy, things are going to get worse. The Bush-Obama economic environment we live in combines stifling regulations with massive government spending and uncertainty about what Washington will do next. This dis-incentivizes growth, hiring, and investment in the U.S.; meanwhile, business moves to foreign economies with better incentives.
Unemployment lingers above 9%, and the real number when we include all who are underemployed is pushing 20%. The mortgage bubble may not have reached its lowest collapse, and inflation or deflation appear imminent. In response, the White House now recommends more government spending, regulations and programs.
This is a truly amazing debate. The more the government regulates and spends, the worse the economy fares. As a result, the government seeks to spend more. And a lot of the American people think this is a good idea.
Many Americans were shocked into political activism by the Great Recession, where the average household lost 3.2% of its income.[ii] Since the Great Recession ended, during the so-called Recovery, the average household has lost an additional 6.7%.[iii] Are we simply scared into submission? Are we crying out to the government to fix things, because we are deeply terrified that nobody else will? Is that why so many people believe that government force is more likely to boost our economy than free enterprise?
The amazing question remains: Given all of history, how can anyone take the Force side of the current great debate?
[i] Bill Clinton, who said that the era of big government is over, has addressed a number of these same challenges in his book, Back to Work: Why We Need Smart Government for a Strong Economy. There is much to agree and also disagree with this book, and it is an important read for interested Americans.
[ii] Harpers, December 2011.
He is the co-author of New York Times, Wall Street Journal and USA Today bestseller LeaderShift, and author of A Thomas Jefferson Education: Teaching a Generation of Leaders for the 21st Century, and The Coming Aristocracy: Education & the Future of Freedom.
Oliver is dedicated to promoting freedom through leadership education. He and his wife Rachel are raising their eight children in Cedar City, Utah.