| October 18, 2012

Fall in love with freedom all over again

It's worth noting, in the wake of three major national debates, that all four national candidates -- Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, Joe Biden and Paul Ryan – seem to think of themselves as superheroes. Among other predictions, they suggest that they themselves will create jobs, jumpstart the economy, achieve energy independence, save Medicare and improve higher education.

In reality, on the domestic front, they'll do nothing more nor less than execute the laws enacted by Congress and implement allowable government policies with the help of an overblown federal bureaucracy. At least, that's all they'll do if they abide by the Constitution. A president might seek, as President Obama has at various points throughout his presidency, to legislate through executive orders and extralegal regulations, but, even should the outcome of those orders and regulations be favorable on the create-utopia front, they'd still erode our much-cherished political system of separation of powers.

To put it more simply, the slick-sounding predictions and promises of Messrs. Obama, Romney, Biden and Ryan might be politically savvy, but they don’t exactly proceed from key American foundational assumptions about government and particularly the role of the executive. To keep all their promises, they’ll need a mighty amount of cooperation from the American people and Congress or they’ll have to skirt the system.

The election matters. It probably matters more than any election in the history of our republic. Our sense of ourselves matters even more. Question after question last night amounted to this: "What can you do for me?" If that's any indication, we've arrived at a time in which Democrats and Republicans alike think the purpose of the federal government – and, more specifically, the presidency – is not merely to provide for the common defense, secure our rights and promote the general welfare, but also to guarantee a decent living, health care and a world-class education for all Americans.

That's all fine if we no longer care to determine our own destinies -- but, if we, like the generations of Americans before us, would rather risk poverty for the sake of freedom than risk freedom for the sake of personal security, then it's time to rein in this expanded conception of government.

The measure of the success of a domestic policy should not be whether it delivers outcomes that a majority of Americans agree are desirable -- a secure retirement, for example, or a well-rounded education or reduced poverty. The measure of the success of a domestic policy should be whether it leaves us freer to pursue the jobs, health care and education -- in short, the lives -- we want. We've mistaken the right to pursue happiness with a right to happiness. Unfortunately, happiness never comes in the form of a handout; it comes through earned success.

Perhaps we should stop asking "What can you do for me?" and start asking, "What can I do for myself?" (The truly mature person asks, "What can I do for others?" but, just as a passenger in a spiraling airplane should strap on his own oxygen mask before he helps his seatmate, we have to be able to care for ourselves before we can care for others.) The Constitution already answers the question of what a president can do for us. The answer, intentionally, is: Not much. The biographies of great men and women answer the question of what individuals are capable of when they leverage whatever resources are at their disposal -- from the meagerest penny to the most fabulous inheritance -- with courage and creativity. The answer is: A great deal.

If we're able-bodied adults and we're presently unable to do for ourselves what needs to be done, then maybe that's less an indication that the government is too weak than that we as individuals are not as strong as we should be.

The very first step is to desire to be strong as individuals, as families, as communities – to desire to be independent from the government. Do we? If we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll admit: Often, we want to be dependent. We conflate freedom from responsibility with true freedom. We want to be freed of all obligations, to be taken care of by someone else, to be told what choice to make when we face a dilemma. Unfortunately for us, that's not true freedom; that's to be at the mercy and under the control of whoever does take responsibility for us.

As the great economist Friedrich von Hayek wrote in The Road to Serfdom, "The economic freedom which is the prerequisite of any other freedom cannot be the freedom from the economic care which the socialists promise us and which can be obtained only by relieving the individual at the same time of the necessity and of the power of choice; it must be the freedom of our economic activity which, with the right of choice, inevitably also carries the risk and the responsibility of that right.”

In other words, if we want freedom, we have to accept responsibility. Kindergarten stuff, maybe – but still stiff medicine!

“It is ... [the citizens'] choice, and depends upon their conduct,” said George Washington, “whether they will be respectable and prosperous, or contemptible and miserable as a Nation. This is the time of their political probation; this is the moment when the eyes of the World are turned upon them.”

May we choose to be respectable and, so, prosperous; may we choose freedom and independence.

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