It has not been a good week for American government. But does this mean it has been a good week for the American people? Perhaps.
Faced with the discomforting prospect of funding another arm of the American Leviathan, a stalwart group of legislators has for a time delayed implementation of Obamacare. And a sizable portion of the American people, already having experienced the troubles associated with a one-size-fits-all health care system, has shown its distaste for this latest usurpation by supporting the efforts.
But what good can come from a situation in which half of the country considers the federal government its most earnest friend, while the other half views it as its most threatening domestic enemy? And what will our nation’s future look like if we move further along the progressive course?
We already know that the progressivism’s price is beyond what we can pay. Consider the Sept. 17 report from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) forecasting that the federal debt will grow to 190 percent of the nation’s annual economic output by 2038.
During the same period, the ratio between the working age and elderly populations will shrink 38 percent, causing enormous strain on the younger generation’s ability to pay for the Medicare, Social Security, and now Obamacare of its parents and grandparents. An intergenerational war is coming and justice won’t be on the side of the elders.
The hope of Progressive thinkers in the first half of the 20th century was that central planning would so transform society that competition between individuals or generations would disappear.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt adviser and Columbia economist R.G. Tugwell argued that Adam Smith’s description of economic behavior as directed by the profit motive did not accurately describe the experience of many Americans, who no longer received the full reward of their economic efforts. Once largely self-employed, but now workers within larger industrial organizations, men continued to be productive, even though the fruits of their labor were pocketed as spoils of war by the captains of industry.
If we had moved beyond individual reward for individual virtuous actions, why not hand over the United States to “a central group of experts charged with the duty of planning the country’s economic life” who could ensure that workers received adequate compensation for their efforts?
Tugwell and his allies assumed they could (1) figure out what each American needed to be satisfied, (2) direct the American economic engine to produce it, and (3) distribute this production to each according to his need. All the experts required was the means: “an enlarged and nationalised police power for enforcement” so that there were “none exempt from compulsion to serve a planned public interest.”
At least part of this vision is being actualized in the Affordable Care Act. Who, after all, wrote the bill that the Speaker of the House could not be bothered to read? Who will sit on what Sarah Palin provocatively, but justly, called the “death panels” to determine how far coverage will be extended – not for just one health care policy, but for all? Compulsion is the central principle of the program, whether applied in the individual mandate, the requirements for employers, or the bureaucratic takeover of the health insurance industry.
Fundamentally, the law is constructed to make the young and healthy subsidize the health care of the old and infirm. It therefore denies the first principle of health insurance: the link between risk and rate.
In other words, Obamacare is not about extending the reach of our health insurance-based system; it is about replacing it with a government-directed system where virtue and nature are ignored – and the will and whim of the Progressive elite are imposed on all.
It is tempting when considering the failures of Progressive government to assume that there can be no good government at all. And in any case, the slightest hint from conservatives in that direction will certainly be seized upon by Progressives as evidence of anarchism. That straw man has been picked to pieces (again) by the president and his team of Progressive crows over the last few weeks.
Those guided by the founders’ principles are, of course, made of stronger stuff – and recognize the vital importance of a limited government. In Federalist 11, Alexander Hamilton restates the case for union in terms of its importance to the commercial welfare of the newly-established United States. Hamilton suggests that nothing has produced more unanimity at home, and more unease abroad, than the prospect of the United States leveraging its union to advance its commercial interests. But the way he proposes to do this is very different from the Progressive vision.
American weakness had allowed foreign powers (especially the British) to impose artificial and unjust restrictions on American trade. A united America, equipped with an adequate navy, Hamilton hopes, might “erelong . . . become the arbiter of Europe in America, and . . . be able to incline the balance of European competitions in this part of the world as our interest may dictate.”
Freedom in commerce, Hamilton reasons, requires adequate means to protect it – weak nations leave their people’s liberties at the mercy of foreign powers. A federal navy able to draw upon the complementary resources of all thirteen American states would enable the government to supply the power necessary to ensure that Americans were able to trade with the world on fair terms. It would prevent foreign powers from stifling the “unequaled spirit of enterprise, which signalizes the genius of the American merchants and navigators and which is in itself an inexhaustible mine of national wealth . . . ”
The role of government, as Hamilton saw it, was to break down artificial barriers to the natural flow of American industry. Hamilton reasons from human nature throughout his Federalist essays. Over and over again he presses the importance of providing incentives for good behavior to individuals too often inclined to advance their personal good at the expense of others.
The market provides just such incentives. Its rewards go not to the greedy, but to those who are best able to supply the wants of others. When government provides a context in which free and honest industry leads to free and honest exchange, it does all it can to promote this sort of virtuous behavior.
But when government does its job badly – whether by doing too little or too much – many people suffer. A nation that might otherwise be “the admiration and envy of the world” is instead “overspread” with “poverty and disgrace.”
The United States has not yet sunk this far, though an economy perpetually stuck in second gear has left too many people un- and underemployed for far too long. It has also convinced many others that we have come to the end of the period of ever-increasing American prosperity – and prompted them to adjust their expectations accordingly. Our decline will not stop, however, if we perpetuate the system that has created it. Our decline will accelerate if we add to that system – and nothing would do that like the full implementation of Obamacare.
Differentiation in nature and circumstance are definitive realities of the human condition. Many a government before the United States had attempted to amplify natural differences – to give extra benefits to the already blessed – through the artifice of government. The Founders rightly saw this effort as unjust.
But in the last century, Progressives have attempted to eradicate natural differences through the artifice of government. That they have left our nation broke is a fact. But whether they have left us broken is still an open question. We can still choose to elect and support leaders who want to break down artificial barriers to the natural flow of American industry, liberality, and community.
But the clock is ticking.
Feature Photo Credit: Matt Rourke/AP
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