A Nation of Beggars

The American Spectator.com
A Time for Choosing  By James Piereson from the May 2012 issue (abridged)

Better that we become a nation of choosers rather than beggars. An introduction to our special symposium.

When the Soviet empire collapsed 25 years ago, many believed that the battle for liberty and limited government had been won. It was only a matter of time, they thought, until America’s centrally planned welfare state would give way to a more rational system based upon competition and citizen choice in areas such as education, health care, and retirement planning. They were wrong. Government has continued to grow at all levels in the United States since the Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall came down, consuming more resources, imposing ever more burdensome regulations on business, and running up unprecedented levels of debt. While our leaders cheered the collapse of socialism abroad, they still supported highly centralized government programs at home.

This year the federal government will spend $3.8 trillion, about 25 percent of the nation’s real Gross Domestic Product, and will borrow around $1.3 trillion, much of it to cover the exploding costs of three large entitlement programs, Medicare, Social Security, and Medicaid. Federal spending has doubled since 2001, while the nation’s GDP has grown by less than half. As a consequence, the gross federal debt has more than doubled in the past five years to nearly $16 trillion, a figure that exceeds the annual output of the entire U.S. economy. Many economists warn that countries that allow their affairs to cross this fiscal barrier—when debt tops GDP—place themselves at great risk for runaway inflation or a credit crisis of some kind. Given the direction of events, Americans may soon face a choice between living under a European-style welfare state with the high taxes and loss of freedom it would entail or returning to a system of smaller but effective government based upon traditional American principles of freedom, choice, and individual responsibility.

The united states is the “choice” country par excellence, founded as it was in a Declaration of Independence that proclaimed liberty and equal rights for all, and castigated the British King because he erected “a multitude of new offices, and sent hither swarms of officers to harass our people, and eat out their substance.” For four centuries people in other lands have made the choice to embark upon a dangerous journey to reach these shores to find freedom and opportunity. As new immigrants arrived, those already here pushed westward on horseback and in wagons in search of free land, taking on enormous risk and hardship as they did so. Most of this was accomplished by individuals and groups acting on their own; very little of it was supervised by government. The great exception to the story of free settlement was that of African slavery and of a people brought here against its will to work for others. Americans rightly regard this as a blot on their history, but it should not be forgotten that they fought a civil war to eliminate it.

The epic story of the United States is one of unprecedented expansion and development according to principles untried in other parts of the world or even in the history of mankind. Few could have envisioned that a small country of three or four million souls bottled up along the Atlantic seaboard would expand within two or three generations to occupy all the land between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans; or that it would evolve a few generations after that into a population of more than 300 million and the most prosperous nation on earth. Americans were the first to take Adam Smith’s basic teaching to heart: that free people, exchanging freely with one another, make the world better for all.

Many Americans are properly concerned that the principles that built their country are eroding before their eyes. The entitlement state undoubtedly undermines self-discipline and individual responsibility. Some estimate that more than half the households in the country receive benefits from government in one form or another. At the same time, fewer than half of those households pay federal income taxes, a trend that is accelerating as more people seek benefits and fewer pay taxes. We are reaching the point, and may have reached it already, at which there are more people riding in the wagon than there are pulling it forward.

About the Author:
James Piereson is president of the William E. Simon Foundation and senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. He is the author of Camelot and the Cultural Rev­olution: How the Assassination of John F. Kennedy Shattered American Liberalism (Encounter Books).

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