A nation of 300 million souls—richest and most powerful in the world, for all its messes and perturbations—needs a turning radius wide as the future. But you know what—realization precedes intellectual assent, which precedes needed action. There's much to be hopeful about as the nation goes in for its electoral physical.
Valuable realizations are growing upon us. I mention two that might lead to assent and, eventually, action.
First, you gotta have rich people, like it or not—a point evidenced by growing support for renewing all, not just some, of the Bush tax cuts. "I don't think this is the time," says the Connecticut Democrat Joe Lieberman, "to raise anyone's taxes, including those who are wealthiest." So saying, Lieberman evidences understanding of two economic truths: 1) the rich pay most of our taxes to begin with, and 2) tax hikes lead the intended victims to work or invest so as to decrease their tax liability, even if their ensuing decisions reduce economic productivity.
Democratic arguments for cutting the rich out of the tax-cut extension, sure to pass this year, rests upon the premise that class warfare works politically. It does—until the consequences start to show through the seams. A policy of redistributing other people's money doesn't wipe out the rich; it does build into the tax system a bias against wealth accumulation.
Wealth, however, plus the simple desire for it, puts people to work. The price of an expanding middle class is tolerance of other people's success and even greed. Speaking of greed, isn't that just part of Original Sin?—the good old human condition, dating back to Eden? What do we want government to do, after all—overhaul the human condition from top to bottom?
A second realization that grows upon us is that centralized "We'll Do Everything in the World for You (If You'll Keep Voting for Us)" doesn't get the job done. Wasn't that economic stimulus bill a great success? Eight hundred billion, and don't we feel better? We don't? Maybe we're wondering whether cutting taxes and regulations for the private sector isn't the quickest way to get laggard economies off their backs and on their legs again.
Another notable ingredient of centralized government is control of schools, control of curriculum and standards: a general shutdown, so far as government and teacher unions can manage it, of private decisions in educational matters.
Things were bad enough when all decisions began to bunch up at the state capital. Now they cluster at the tip-top—the U.S. Department of Education, may it vanish in the night like a carpet stain soaked in detergent. The Obama administration is currently in the process of trying to set national standards for school performance. It already controls the way federal money is spent at the local level—overmatched experts from colleges of education.
In a much-touted new book (Life Without Lawyers: Liberating America from Too Much Law), Philip K. Howard sets forth five goals of extraordinary relevance to our present discontents, each goal centered on the need to increase personal accountability and responsibility. Howard wants, among other things, to "Push responsibility down to local organizations—give back to Americans the freedom to make a difference—without unnecessary interference of centralized bureaucracy, especially in schools and other social services."
In other words, he hopes we might become again what we once were: a people dedicated to the proposition that those nearest a problem know the most about it. Shouldn't they?
Let's not celebrate just yet. Remember the time and space needful for nations to turn upon their axes: great battleships in a bathtub. Still, what could be nearer our present purposes than some counsel we once heard from within the Obama administration? Never, so the counsel went, let a crisis go to waste—this crisis, flowing from forgetfulness as to what happens when government promises the moon ... and falls flat on delivering the atmospheric gases.
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Thomas Fleming is the former editor of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He is the author of The Politics of Human Nature, Montenegro: The Divided Land, and The Morality of Everyday Life, named Editors' Choice in philosophy by Booklist in 2005. He is the coauthor of The Conservative Movement and the editor of Immigration and the American Identity. He holds a Ph.D. in classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Before joining the Rockford Institute, he taught classics at the University of Miami of Ohio, served as an advisor to the U.S. Department of Education, and was headmaster at the Archibald Rutledge Academy. He has been published in, among others, The Spectator (London), Independent on Sunday (London), Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, USA Today, Chicago Sun-Times, National Review, Classical Journal, Telos, and Modern Age. He and his wife, Gail, have four children and four grandchildren.