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Comentary from the Free Enterprise Foundation, Issue #09-03- More Thought Provoking Commentary!
January 27, 2009
You are invited to read the latest commentary from the Free Enterprise Foundation. It will make you think!
Through The Looking GlassBy Robert E. Freer, Jr., President of The Free Enterprise Foundation
‘Alice looked round her in great surprise. "Why, I do believe we've been under this tree all the time! Everything's just as it was!"
"Of course it is," said the Queen: "what would you have it?"
"Well, in our country," said Alice, still panting a little, "you'd generally get to somewhere else -- if you ran very fast for a long time, as we've been doing."
"A slow sort of country!" said the Queen. "Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!"
"I'd rather not try, please!" said Alice.’ (Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland)
Well, here we are. We have stepped through the looking glass, and instead of a room we find a dark void, no floor, and we are falling, falling through darkness. So far, so good, but we think we know, or at least our prior experience suggests, that at the speed we are plummeting landing is unlikely to be much fun.
If you are like me, you know in your bones, your very core; there is something wrong with this picture. We have just come to an end of a period of unprecedented spending by the public for items it did not need and could not afford. At the same time, the public has ignored even basic prudence in planning for its own needs in their declining years or for life’s emergencies. To the extent that any planning was done, the public is shocked by the evaporation of its savings that came with the drastic drop in the value of its retirement equity. At this point, the President-elect calls for immediate, sky-is-falling passage of an economic rescue package. This veritable piñata for all comers may well exceed a trillion dollars the country doesn’t have, and neither foreign investors nor our own citizens want to loan it to our national government. All our favorite economists say it is what is needed; it will fix us up in a jiffy, and we can get back to our dissolute ways in a year or two.
Let me see if I understand this. We got in the trouble we’re in because the public woke up to the fact we were ultimately going to have to pay for all the toys we had obligated ourselves for and really didn’t need; to get going again, we have to spend at the national level like there is no tomorrow; so that we can renew our own dissolute ways the day after that? Well, I understand the syllogism, but neither I nor the public is likely to buy it.
We can all point fingers at this congressman, or that hedge fund manager. We can lament big auto’s management lapses or the obscene level of some corporate bonus but can’t deny what the ache in our heart is telling us; this won’t work. It is like the old saw that says borrow ten dollars from me and don’t pay me back, shame on you; borrow a billion dollars from me that you can’t pay back, and it is “Let’s see if we can work out a deal?” None of us needs Einstein to tell us that is insane.
There is another phenomenon ongoing in America. I suspect it has a connection with the economic meltdown I just described. We are in the early stages of a national reawakening of the American soul questioning how we are living our lives today. In our daily life, we are asking whether all this consumption makes us any happier. In this questioning, environmentalists get credit for some of its manifestations, but it is not a question of whether we are entering a new ice age or global meltdown. It is not even about parts per million of this pollutant or that. Whatever the truth may be in that regard, more fundamentally we are seeking the right way to live a productive life. Such a life must be environmentally sustainable, life affirming and provide the maximum opportunity for individuals to realize their potential.
It is in defining that goal America achieves or loses the dream of its founders. It is in defining that goal we play out our political differences and the meaning of freedom. Obviously, in defining that goal, we will also decide the economic shape of tomorrow’s America. America was founded by individuals seeking the realization of lives characterized by liberty to define and seek the best that life might hold for them. In their connection with other seekers, the efforts were joined only so long as there was agreement as to the social limits the community could impose. Until the frontier was closed, there was always the way West to lure those too confined by orthodoxy one place or another. We are a long way from those times, and now share the challenges of the ancient lands from which our ancestors fled. What does freedom mean and who decides?
Friedrich Hayek in his classic work on the Road to Serfdom notes that for individualists, common actions are only those for which individuals are willing to contribute in return for the assistance they receive in satisfying their own desires. To realize the best that our society can produce, it must not stand in the way of the millions seeking to maximize the benefits of their liberty. I am not talking about activity clearly exploitive of others’ freedom, but of those non conformists who seek their own future through imagination, determination and plain old grit. It is in this area as a society we continue to struggle with the meaning of freedom.
We are about to re-enter a period where a significant portion of economic activity will be “centrally planned.” While creating opportunity, it will, of its very nature, limit the opportunity and those natural economic levers that have driven our economy. To be successful it also must be predictive of human response upon which it is premised. In the former, it is too dear a price to pay, and in the latter I suspect it is fatally flawed.
Planning of the kind we can anticipate is likely not to realize the positive goals it seeks because it is based upon a level of consensus that does not exist. This is not a question of party labels. Regardless of label, each of us has a unique perspective and remains the engine of our own response. In response to the economic planning that will now take place; those responses are likely to deviate from the planners’ assumptions substantially. Given the process I described above regarding the ongoing national inquiry into the nature of the fulfilling life, I very much doubt that the government’s labors will result in the predicted outcome.
Copyright © 2009 by Robert E. Freer, Jr. All rights reserved
About the author: Robert E. Freer, Jr. is President of The Free Enterprise Foundation. He is a Visiting Professor, at The Citadel and elected in 2005 to be their first John S. Grinalds Leader in Residence. A regular contributor to the Mercury, He can be reached by E-mail at The Citadel . Copies of his earlier columns can be found The Free Enterprise Foundation.
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