From the Pilgrims to home-based business owners, possibility thinking and the can-do spirit — coupled with limited government and relatively low taxes — gave Americans the most freedom, the highest standard of living and the greatest opportunity for self-improvement and social mobility.
But the fundamentals that gave rise to opportunity and prosperity in the U.S. are enfeebled. The limited government we enjoyed for nearly 140 years — from the Declaration of Independence until 1913 — is now largely out of control. I pick 1913 as the turning point because that was the year the 17th Amendment (direct election of senators) removed state governments from a direct, constitutional role in federal policy-making. Does anyone believe, for example, that we would have unfunded mandates if the states had a place at the table of federal policy-making, as the Founders intended?
That was also the year of the 16th Amendment, when Americans gave the federal government the power to tax income, and Congress gave enormous powers to the Federal Reserve Board to manage money. Since then, the federal government has become the nation’s biggest tax collector with the largest treasury. Result: There is less for individuals to invest — in a home, their children’s education, and their own retirement, and less to invest in private enterprises that spark innovation and productivity improvement, the real source of higher living standards and more opportunities for everyone.
Federal power over the states and the people has also been increased by Supreme Court decisions that have nearly always favored the expansion of federal power. Result: Federal courts negated both the concept of enumerated powers found in Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution and protections in the Bill of Rights that “reserves” to the states and/or to the people all power not otherwise prohibited or given to the federal government (10th Amendment).
Supreme Court decisions in the 1960s also removed God from the classroom and separated parents from their schools through court-mandated busing. These two acts undermined the foundation for discipline and obedience by children and destroyed the neighborhood school in most of our nation’s cities. Result: The common sense of the customer (the parents) was replaced with the fads and fashions of the provider (primarily the educrats that run the system, typically at the expense of teachers). The stunning decline in the ability of American students attending government schools to perform on standardized tests is but one tragic result of this distressing professionalization and centralization of power.
Now we are seeing an assault on the possibility thinking and can-do attitudes that once defined the American character. Result: A new conventional wisdom is developing around “can’t do” concepts, such as “limits to growth.”
Most troublesome, though, is the concept of “sustainability,” which lets experts “determine” such things as whether we should use more coal or more natural gas or whether we should spend more for windmills or pay more for electricity. The problem: The use of “sustainability” standards in policy-making transfers enormous power from democratic institutions to experts. And worse, expert views are often based on conjecture or very crude forecasting methodologies.
There is a lot of silliness out there. But it is dangerous silliness because it is believed by people like the vice president (as revealed in his best-selling book Earth in the Balance) and it is giving rise to policies that are hazardous to democracy and menacing to the enterprise economy. That means they are threats to freedom and wealth creation, our best guarantors of human dignity. We need to be more attentive.