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  • Victor C. Bolles

Our Precarious Liberty



A plethora of polls highlight the fact that a majority of Americans (and in fact a very large majority of Americans) are convinced that the country is going in the wrong direction. This is not a recent phenomenon but has been a persistent and dominant view as shown in an average of polls compiled by Real Clear Politics over the last twenty years. There may not be any consensus on which direction America should be going but there is one thing that just about everyone agrees on. It is the government’s fault.


The government is responsible for the abysmal education of our kids that leaves them intellectually handicapped and unprepared for life as an adult. It was the government that shut down schools during the height of the Covid pandemic setting our children even further back from their already low standards. Governments nationally and locally pander to teachers’ unions by limiting competition from sources other than public schools. That’s why politicians send their kids to private schools that most of us cannot afford. That’s also why immigrants head many of our most innovative high-tech companies.


It is government policy that has made us vulnerable to energy blackmail by countries that oppose American interests around the world. Fracking liberated the US energy industry and made the US not only energy independent but actually gave us the ability to control the price of oil. Now, restricting access to federal lands and blocking permits, President Biden must beg Saudi Arabia to increase production to help lower the price at the pump. He has even made concessions to the socialist regime in Venezuela to ease the pinch.


The government wants Americans to switch from internal combustion engines to electric vehicles despite the fact that the infrastructure and even the technology for such a switch does not exist. China produces seventy-five percent of the world’s lithium car batteries. Government policy is sacrificing our competitive advantage in energy to China. The government, meanwhile, is refusing to open the US to mine the minerals critical to this technology but is promoting lithium mining in the Congo where the toxic mineral is produced without environmental controls by artisanal miners, many of whom are children.


There is one aspect of American healthcare that beats other countries hands down – its cost. While our health outcomes are only mediocre compared to other countries, the cost of our healthcare system knows no peers. We spend two to three times as much as other countries as a percent of GDP for those mediocre outcomes. Don’t blame greedy doctors and insurance companies – blame government. For some strange reason when your employer pays for your health insurance they get to deduct the cost as an expense, reducing their tax liability. But unlike their expense of paying your salary (which is also deductible), that money is not added to your income so you don’t pay taxes on it either. And because tax incentives motivate behavior, every possible medical expense goes through the insurance company. Insurance is supposed to cover unexpected expenses like your car insurance – not every expense. You don’t file a claim with GEICO for an oil change. No wonder health “insurance” is so expensive. The Tax Policy Center estimates that this double exemption cost the government two hundred and seventy-three billion dollars in twenty-nineteen.


And since infrastructure can’t vote, America’s infrastructure has been neglected for many decades. President Biden was proud that his bipartisan infrastructure bill passed in 2022 but the truth of the matter is that we need to spend on infrastructure every year.


The list goes on and on. Government policies are sometimes well intentioned but often mutated to serve political goals over the public good. Acting in ones own self-interest is not limited to greedy capitalists. Everyone in government from the president to the unionized bureaucrats are acting in their own self-interest. So government policies are bone-headed, convoluted, mind-numbingly complex, incredibly long-winded pieces of junk that usually come with unintended consequences worse than the problem the policy is supposedly to fix.


It is ironic, but America achieved its status as a legitimate world power without a big government. By eighteen ninety the United States was already the largest economy in the world, but the federal government expenditures back then only represented around two point seven percent of GDP as estimated by the National Taxpayers Union. That number was twenty-four point six percent in twenty twenty-two according to the Federal Reserve. And America’s economic growth rate has slowed as government takes over more and more of the economy.


China’s rapid growth over the nearly fifty years since the death of Mao Zedong occurred when the Communist Party of China under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping loosened its grip to allow the Chinese entrepreneurial spirit to flourish. But as the leadership of Xi Jinping has reimposed the grip of the CPC over the people of China, the economy of that country has begun to falter. I think we are beginning to see a pattern here.


 

It is clear that greater government participation in the economy reduces that economy’s ability to grow. Just look at what happened to the Soviet Union. As more of the economy is controlled by bureaucrats and so-called experts the worse the economy performs. It is all a matter of incentives. Bureaucrats are rewarded for a growing bureaucracy not for a growing economy. The larger their government department the higher their ranking on the Government’s general schedule pay scale. A GS-fifteen gets eighteen percent more pay than a GS-fourteen. So senior bureaucrats need more regulation and more analysts and more enforcers of those regulations to advance their careers.


It is not just greedy capitalists that operate in their own self-interest. People, all people, who have the freedom to pursue their own version of happiness, their own unique American Dream, will act in their own best interest. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Adam Smith’s butcher and baker acting in their own self-interest serve the public good by supplying their customers with meat and bread.


Human beings are chronically unhappy and dissatisfied with their condition, even Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos seek to improve their condition. People, acting in their own self-interest, are always seeking to improve their situation. Unfortunately, throughout most of history the vast majority of people lacked the ability to do anything to improve their condition. Their situation was due to fate and they were stuck with it. America changed that – or at least the ideas America was founded on changed all that. We have a right to pursue happiness and that means to improve our situation in our own self-interest.


Self-interest is not limited to economic benefit. Living in a safe, stable community is in everybody’s interest. The rule of law is in everybody’s interest. So, liberty is not absolute. There is a need for government. It is in our mutual self-interest to have police to insure domestic tranquility, a court system to redress our grievances, and a military to protect us from foreign aggressors. This is what Alexis de Tocqueville called self-interest rightly understood.


The balance between our liberties and governmental restraints on our impulses is what makes a happy society. Too much liberty is anarchy, too much government is tyranny. Neither option is in anyone’s self-interest. The unhappiness with the direction of the country uncovered by the Real Clear Politics’ average of polling results may be an indicator that we have gone too far in the application of the common good by governmental force.


More democracy, as called for by the Democrats, is not the answer. Democracy is a tool, not a goal. And democracy, like all tools, can be used for good or it can be misused and abused with evil results. Democracy that creates more government comes at the cost of liberty.

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