President Reagan famously said the nine scariest words in the English language were “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.” He also said, “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” How long ago and far away the Reagan years seem now! After spending over $4 trillion in covid relief efforts, Congress now has a $1.5 trillion infrastructure bill waiting to be passed by the House of Representatives and an even larger $3.5 trillion so-called social infrastructure bill waiting for approval by the Senate.
Just as striking as the amount of money we are spending is the seeming shift in the attitude of the American people away from the traditional American value of rugged individualism and toward a governmental, if not paternalism then at least, parentalism, which, while not a word, is as much one as “they” is a singular pronoun. Do we really desire mummy and daddy in the form of the government to insert itself into every aspect of our lives and “take care of us” by telling us what we can and cannot do, say and think? Are we willing to trade our liberty for the government’s promise to take care of us or to trade American exceptionalism for European-style mediocrity?
America’s experiment with democracy was not meant to make us comfortable, cared for, or immune from the hardships of life; it was meant to make us free. A fascinating sleight-of-hand has occurred concerning the words equality and equity. America has always stood for equality, even if it has had trouble fully executing this ideal. Our country was founded on the pursuit of equality of opportunity for every person regardless of birth circumstance, race, gender, or other irrelevant characteristics. In America, no longer would the old world’s social class based on the accident of one’s birth circumstances dictate the course of one’s life. In America, each individual would be limited only by their capacity for hard work. That is America’s promise and unique benefit of freedom, and why thousands still risk everything to come to America.
What America does not and has never stood for is equality of outcome for all. This ideal is reflected in socialism and communism. While it sounds good in theory, it has proven entirely unworkable when put into practice in the real world because it flies in the face of our nature and our existence.
In this world, no one owes you anything. Nature will stand blithely by and while a person starves. Work and thought are hard and are only pursued out a motivation survive and gain personal/family advantage. Socialists and communists will say all animals are equal, but some animals are always more equal than others, and even worse, productivity is far lower. In the Old World, without individual freedom, there was nothing a person could do to improve the social status into which they were born—but in America, the sky is the limit you can rise as high as your brains and hard work will take you. But the price of freedom is the risk of failure. There is no guarantee of success. Are we now willing to trade our freedom for a guarantee of national health care, guaranteed minimum income, and a safe stall in the government barn? Is becoming a ward of the government worth our liberty?
How will we pay for $3.5 billion in social spending? Yes, we can increase taxes on the rich—but that won’t’ be enough to pay for these vast new government programs. Worse, we as a society are better off leaving the money in the control of those who earned it. I have far more confidence in the stewardship of the person who made money than the stewardship of the government. People who work for something value it, people who receive it as a gift or tax do not—that is simply human nature.
There has always been an appropriate role for government to play in our democracy, but the premise of our system is that limited government is necessary for democracy to flourish. This is why we have our Constitution that lists the only powers the federal government has but contains a Bill of Rights that articulates just some of our individual liberties. Our Constitutional system was not designed to make government more efficient, but if we continue to respect it, we can prevent the government from taking our liberty. We would do well to reconsider Ronald Reagan’s presidency and his wisdom.
• George A. Nation III is Professor of Law & Business at Lehigh University
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