Category: Acton Commentary

Blog author: jcouretas
posted by on Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg contributed this piece to today’s Acton News & Commentary. Sign up here for the free, weekly email newsletter.

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Humility in a Time of Recession

By Samuel Gregg

Since 2008, there has been much discussion about the contribution of unethical behavior to our present economic circumstances. Whether it was borrowers’ lying on mortgage-applications or Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac’s politically-driven lending policies, there seems to be some consciousness that non-economic factors played a role in facilitating what we already call the Great Recession.

Unfortunately evidence is emerging that some people have learned nothing. A recent report, for example, commissioned by the Wall Street Journal illustrates that “losses from mortgage fraud—ranging from falsified credit reports to identity theft—rose 17% last year after declining 57% in the two years after its 2006 peak.”

Of course wider adherence to ethical norms against lying and stealing won’t solve every economic problem. There are heavy technical dimensions to many economic dilemmas which require technical solutions. Nor does every policy-error constitute a moral failure.

Nevertheless those making economic decisions are human beings, and our virtues and vices do shape our purchasing, selling and policy choices. Many such virtues could be highlighted, but one needing extra-attention today is humility.

The word “humility” derives from the Latin humilitas. This in turn comes from humus which means earth or soil, but is also related to homō, meaning man. For the Greeks and Romans, the word underscored the idea that humans are not God or gods. Likewise for the Jews and early Christians, humility was about remembering that humans are fallible creatures who come from and return to the earth: ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Some first millennium Christian writers, such as St. John Chrysostom, even described humility as the mother of the virtues, as it prevented vanity from corrupting every other virtue.

So how might a renewed embrace of humility help us to rethink our approach to contemporary economic life?

In the case of consumers, a good dose of humility might well encourage some acceptance that the meaning of life is not simple and is certainly not to be found in how many material things we possess, as important as wealth can be in helping us to live dignified lives. To this extent, greater humility might temper the “I-want-it-all-right-now” mentality that helped generate such high household-debt levels in America and Europe.

Likewise, businesses could benefit from a renewed appreciation of humility. The financial wizard the late Sir John Templeton once wrote that humility was crucial if business was to maintain the open-mindedness that is essential to successful entrepreneurship rather than rest upon their past glories. To this we might add the insight of another prominent entrepreneur, François Michelin, that humility helps business leaders in a market economy remember that the customers are the real masters. More humble business-leaders would also be less-inclined to succumb to the “Masters-of-the-Universe” hubris that helped destroy any number of banks in 2008.

Speaking of hubris, humility also has a role to play in encouraging mainstream economists to accept economics’ limits as a science and acknowledge that not everything about markets can be explained by mathematical models that were supposed to fail only once in a million years. As George Mason University professor of economics Russ Roberts has wisely observed, while “facts and evidence still matter”, economists “should face the evidence that we are no better today at predicting tomorrow than we were yesterday.”

But perhaps those who could do with the biggest bout of humility during recessions are politicians and governments. If the Great Recession has taught us anything, it is that governments should admit many economic problems are beyond their control, and that any claim by politicians to be able to “manage” trillion-dollar economies is arrogant nonsense.

Instead politicians should be modest enough to concede that (1) the seemingly disorderly process of market exchange resolves many challenges that governments cannot; and (2) government overreach invariably causes new problems. Here they would do well to read Adam Smith’s famous warning concerning the “man of system” who “is apt to be very wise in his own conceit, and is so often enamored with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it.”

The fear of the Lord, the Bible says, is the beginning of wisdom. Contrary to received opinion, this verse has nothing to do with frightening people into religious belief. Instead it reminds each of us that we are not the center of the universe and that the sooner we grasp this, the wiser our choices will be. All of us—consumers, business-leaders, and politicians—need to be sufficiently humble to reassess our actions in a time of recession, acknowledge our errors, and then live out the necessary correctives.

To this extent, the virtue of humility may well be a key to understanding our pre-recessionary past and a way of illuminating our path to a better and more economically-prosperous future.

Dr. Samuel Gregg is Research Director at the Acton Institute. He has authored several books including On Ordered Liberty, his prize-winning The Commercial Society, and Wilhelm Röpke’s Political Economy.

The Detroit News picked up Anthony Bradley’s Acton Commentary this week, and republished it as “Teachers unions, civil rights groups protect failed schools.”

Bradley:

Civil-rights groups including the NAACP, the National Urban League, Rainbow PUSH Coalition, recently released a joint statement objecting to the Obama administration’s education reform proposal, which includes the closing of failing schools, increasing use of charter schools, and other common sense moves toward choice and accountability in education. These groups reject Obama’s so-called “extensive reliance on charter schools.”

Even though there is overwhelming evidence supporting the success of charter schools for children from low-income households, the civil rights groups resist the opportunity for parents to exercise freedom to choose those schools.

This week’s Acton Commentary:

Deficits, Debt, and Self-Deception

By Samuel Gregg

It passed almost unnoticed, but in late July the Obama Administration raised the Federal Government’s budget deficit forecast for fiscal year 2011 to $1.4 trillion. That’s up from February’s forecast of $1.267 trillion. In July alone, the Federal Government’s deficit was $165 billion, of which $20 billion was for interest-payments on debt.

The long-term outlook is even worse. The U.S. Government is now borrowing approximately 41 cents of every dollar it spends. It’s also predicting additional borrowing of $8.5 trillion until 2020. If that eventuates, America’s national debt would exceed 77 percent of its annual economic output.

At some point, most of us become dazed by all these numbers that track America’s upward spiral of debt. This numbness is only exacerbated by the fact that government debt-excesses in most developed countries have been matched and even surpassed by household and financial-sector debt.

In Spain, for instance, household debt rose from 69 percent of disposable income in 2000 to 130 percent in 2008. Britain was worse, with the ratio rising from 105 percent to 160 percent over the same period. Average American household debt increased from $27,000 in 2001 to $44,000 today.

The economic effects of servicing all this debt (let alone paying down the principle) are not hard to grasp. For many households, it means either bankruptcy or severe curtailing of lifestyles so that expectations match people’s actual incomes. For others, it translates into less access to credit, even for those with good credit records or well-conceived business plans that need only sufficient capitalization to succeed. The cost of servicing government debt also reduces the amount of private sector capital available for investment. This means slower growth which further impedes our ability to shrink government deficits. (more…)

In this week’s Acton Commentary, I discuss whether the Environmental Protection Agency’s planned regulation of carbon emissions can be justified from a Christian perspective.  The EPA has found that carbon emissions endanger “public health and welfare,” and it is on track to begin regulating vehicle and power plant emissions.

Environmentalists claim that policies targeting carbon emissions, such as EPA regulation or a cap-and-trade program, will stimulate the economy by creating green jobs.  Unfortunately, this is not the case – the government does not have the ability to create jobs.

Rather than stimulating the American economy, full regulation of carbon emissions will damage it severely.  Essentially, a cap or a regulatory burden on carbon emissions would create energy scarcity, making it just as expensive to purchase energy from fossil fuels as it is to purchase energy from “renewable” sources.  The supply of efficient energy would drop in order to encourage production and consumption of inefficient energy, and prices would skyrocket as a result.

Barack Obama himself admitted, as a presidential candidate, that rising energy prices form a crucial component of emissions regulation.

It’s not just energy prices that will rise.  Prices for virtually all other goods and services will rise as well, because it takes energy to produce them.  It takes energy to get a vegetable from a farmer’s field to your kitchen table.  It takes energy to plant the vegetable, cultivate it, harvest it, transport it, keep it fresh, sell it in a lighted grocery store, drive it from the grocery store to the house, and cook it.

If energy expenses increase at every stage of the vegetable’s journey, what will happen to the price of the vegetable?  It will rise.  And rising prices will have the worst impact on the poor.  Before Christians jump on the bandwagon of carbon politics, they would do well to think through not just the good intentions of climate policy, but the real-world consequences.

Read “In the ‘Green’ Economy, the Poor Pay More” on the Acton website.

Last month, in “Europe’s Choice: Populate or Perish,” Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg observed:

At a deeper level … Europe’s declining birth-rate may also reflect a change in intellectual horizons. A cultural outlook focused upon the present and disinterested in the future is more likely to view children as a burden rather than a gift to be cared for in quite un-self-interested ways. Individuals and societies that have lost a sense of connection to their past and have no particular interest in their long-term destiny aren’t likely to be worried about a dearth of children. Here Europe’s generation of 1968—which promoted a radical rupture with the past and is intensely suspicious of anything that might broaden people’s outlooks beyond the usual politically-correct causes—has much to answer for.

In “America’s Parent Trap,” Washington Post columnist Robert J. Samuelson picks up the same theme noting that, “Our society does not — despite rhetoric to the contrary — put much value on raising children.” He takes a closer look at tax policy, among other factors, and the way it financially punishes parents.

While having a child is a deeply personal decision, it’s also shaped by culture, religion, economics and government policy. “No one has a good answer” as to why fertility varies among countries, says sociologist Andrew Cherlin of Johns Hopkins University. Eroding religious belief in Europe may partly explain lowered birth rates. In Japan, young women may be rebelling against their mothers’ isolated lives of child-rearing. General optimism and pessimism count. Hopefulness fueled America’s baby boom. After the Soviet Union’s collapse, says Cherlin, “anxiety for the future” depressed birth rates in Russia and Eastern Europe.

In poor societies, people have children to improve their economic well-being by increasing the number of family workers and providing support for parents in their old age. In wealthy societies, the logic often reverses. Government now supports the elderly, diminishing the need for children. By some studies, the safety nets for retirees have reduced fertility rates by 0.5 children in the United States and almost 1.0 in Western Europe, reports economist Robert Stein in the journal National Affairs. Similarly, some couples don’t have children because they don’t want to sacrifice their lifestyles to the time and expense of a family.

We need to avoid Western Europe’s mix of high taxes, low birth rates and feeble economic growth. Young Americans already face a bleak labor market that cannot instill confidence about having children. Piling on higher taxes won’t help. “If higher taxes make it more expensive to raise children,” says demographer Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute, “people will think more about having another child.” That seems common sense, despite the multiple influences on becoming parents.

Read Samuelson’s column on the Washington Post website.

This week’s commentary by Rev. Gregory Jensen. Sign up for Acton News & Commentary here.

Finding the Balance: Privacy and the Civil Society

Privacy in our culture has come to serve not a deepening of community life but an ever deeper sense of social isolation.  Even otherwise laudable behavior is increasingly justified not by the goodness of what is done but by the modern sense of privacy.  Even among those who ought to know better, the Gospel is presented in terms that are almost wholly personal without any sense of its public character and demands.   Our sense of isolation from each other has become so profound that even to suggest that there is a human nature and that true happiness is only possible when we live in conformity to our nature, is seen a provocation and an assault on the radical autonomy of the individual.  

Paradoxically, when privacy is in the service of isolation it is also the source of what Peggy Noonan (The Eyes Have It) describes as our increasingly "exhibitionist culture."  She writes that more and more we "know things about each other (or think we do) that we should not know, have no right to know, and have a right, actually, not to know.”  While technology has a role to play here, Noonan sees the cause as rooted in the loss of what I would call the right sense of personal privacy.  Lose this, Noonan says, and "we lose some of our humanity; we lose things that are particular to us, that make us separate and distinctive as souls, as, actually, children of God."  And with this loss comes as well the loss of a truly civil society.  "We also lose trust, not only in each other but in our institutions, which we come to fear. “ 

Not that the modern sense of privacy is all bad.  Without privacy, without a door I can close (and the trust that you will respect that closed door) I cannot from time to time withdraw into solitude.  Rightly understood, privacy is the functional expression of solitude.

Solitude as a discipline of the spiritual life is both the antithesis and the cure for culture’s wild and destructive vacillations between isolation and exhibition.   Privacy serves, or rather should serve, those moments in my life when — like Jesus — I withdraw from the ebb and flow of daily life "to a quiet place" to pray (see Luke 9:10).  It is in these moments of recollection that I am able to restore myself and to re-evaluate and, if need be, correct how I go about meeting the myriad personal and professional demands of life.  And so just as privacy serves solitude, solitude in turn serves my wholesome involvement in the broader society.   

What critics, and even defenders, of the free market and democracy often forget is that both institutions are rooted in the solitude that privacy defends.   Neither social isolation — which sees my neighbor as a threat to my dignity — nor exhibitionism — which in the final analysis is merely another form of lust –is a sound anthropological foundation for a free market economy, democracy, or a civil society. So where ought we then to look?  

Rodney Stark (The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success) is correct when he argues that Western culture owes much of its success to Christianity in general and monastic life in particular.  Monasticism is a life of disciplined solitude in the service of community; it is also part of the shared cultural and spiritual patrimony of the Christian West and East.   As such it represents not only our best cultural self, it also can serve as a meeting place for Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox Christians as we work to respond to an increasingly secular and fragmented culture at home and the threats of Islamism worldwide. 

Though we need not ourselves be monks or nuns (though I think we do well to promote and encourage monastic life within our respective Christian communities), this should not stop us from seeing in monastic life a rich source of anthropological wisdom with which to respond to our culture’s deformed, and deforming, view of the relationship between the person and society.   Most importantly, among these is an inconvenient truth that even Christians are likely to overlook.   

Important as they are, economic activity, scientific research and even public policy shaped by the Gospel are insufficient.  True human freedom — personal and political — is a divine gift and so always outside our control.  Though he was not a monk, the Romanian Orthodox theologian, Dumitru Staniloae (1903-1993), gives voice to a central monastic insight for our time.  In his monograph, “Prayer and Holiness,” he writes that, "The man who does not pray remains a slave, enclosed in the complex mechanisms of the natural world and of the movements of his own passions by which he is dominated even more than by the world outside."  Individualism and exhibitionism, to say nothing of the brutishness and violence that are common in all areas of contemporary culture, are the symptoms of our servitude.   

In response to this self-imposed slavery and for the sake of a truly humane and civil society, we must cultivate in ourselves a right sense of privacy and so of solitude and community life. Monasticism is a tangible sign that such a life of solitude and of civic engagement is possible. It reminds us as well that we must place our great material and cultural wealth and technological prowess at the service of something greater than our own comfort or economic success.  

Also this week in Acton Commentary, Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg observes that “Europe’s declining birth-rate may also reflect a change in intellectual horizons.”

Europe’s Choice: Populate or Perish

If there is one thing the global economic crisis has highlighted, it’s the need to make choices—sometimes very difficult choices. At the June G-20 summit, for example, several European governments made it clear to the Obama Administration that they do not believe you can spend your way out of recessions. Unlike America, countries such as David Cameron’s Britain and Angela Merkel’s Germany have chosen the politically-risky but economically-brave path of austerity and public-sector spending cuts.

In some instances, these measures may not be enough to prevent countries such as Greece and Portugal from sovereign-debt defaults. Still, the alternatives are ever-rising government debt-to-GDP ratios (which invariably prolong stagnation as has occurred in Japan since the 1990s) or attempts to simply inflate the debt away (thereby risking the terrible experience of 1920s Germany or America’s 1970s economic malaise).

In the end, however, escaping the Great Recession’s effects is going to require more than spending cuts. The only long-term way out is economic growth. Here, however, much of Europe faces a problem that most non-European countries do not. The challenge is one of an overall population decline and an aging population. As stated in a 2006 IMF report, “The population of the 25-member European Union in coming decades is set to become slightly smaller—but much older—posing significant risks to potential economic growth and putting substantial upward pressure on public spending.”

However one examines the statistics, the demographic picture for Europe—including Eastern Europe and Russia—is bleak. Statistically-speaking, the numbers of births per woman required merely to maintain a population’s size is 2.1 children. Not a single European country meets that figure today. Germany’s birth-rate, for instance, is 1.38. Italy’s is 1.41. Spain’s is 1.39. France and Britain are doing comparatively well at 2.0 and 1.94 respectively, but—you guessed it—Greece is the lowest in the EU.

Nor is any consolation to be found in the aging statistics. In Belgium, the percentage of the population over 65 will increase from 16 percent to 25 percent by 2050. In 2007, a World Bank document stated that by 2050 approximately half of Spain’s population will be 55 or older.

The reasons for these trends are many. The twentieth century’s two world wars tore large generational holes in Europe’s demographic landscape. Women are also having children later in life. There also seems to be a broad correlation between increasing material prosperity and diminishing population growth. Then there is the greater access to contraception from the 1950s onwards.

But more subtle cultural factors may also be at work. For one thing, it’s striking how many Europeans are reluctant to discuss the subject of their population decline. This may owe something to an association of calls to have more children with the population policies of totalitarian regimes such as Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia, Mussolini’s Italy, and Ceauşescu’s Romania. Another factor may be many Europeans’ susceptibility to population-growth alarmism, as manifested in many European governments’ aggressive promotion of population-control in developing countries (which strikes some as verging on neocolonialism).

At a deeper level, however, Europe’s declining birth-rate may also reflect a change in intellectual horizons. A cultural outlook focused upon the present and disinterested in the future is more likely to view children as a burden rather than a gift to be cared for in quite un-self-interested ways. Individuals and societies that have lost a sense of connection to their past and have no particular interest in their long-term destiny aren’t likely to be worried about a dearth of children. Here Europe’s generation of 1968—which promoted a radical rupture with the past and is intensely suspicious of anything that might broaden people’s outlooks beyond the usual politically-correct causes—has much to answer for.

Immigration is one way for European countries to escape these conundrums. After all, it has proved to be one of America’s engines of economic growth and continues to help the United States avoid the population trap in which Europe now finds itself. For decades, Western Europe relied on immigration, especially from Islamic countries, for cheap labor, especially for those unpleasant jobs some Europeans prefer not to do.

For the moment, however, increased immigration doesn’t appear to be an option for Europe. The policies of multiculturalism have failed and produced such deep fractures in many European societies that most European governments are presently reducing immigration from non-European countries.

Is demography destiny? It need not be. Demography is only one variable among many. Moreover individuals and nations can make choices, and choices change our future. Sometimes circumstances, such as the global economy’s present problems, can provide the incentive and opportunity to break away from apparently unalterable paths.

The clock, however, is ticking. The longer Europeans fail to address their demographic difficulties, the smaller becomes their room for maneuver, and the more likely Europe will be reduced to being a bit-player on the world’s political and economic stage.

The loss would be not only Europe’s, but ours as well.

Dr. Samuel Gregg is Research Director at the Acton Institute. He has authored several books including On Ordered Liberty, his prize-winning The Commercial Society, and Wilhelm Röpke’s Political Economy.

My commentary this week touches on the spiritual and cultural significance of the largest U.S. oil spill in history. I was a resident of the Mississippi Gulf Coast for 11 and a half years. I worked in the Gulfport district office of U.S. Congressman Gene Taylor (D-Miss) before leaving for seminary. I was a Katrina evacuee and returned to see unbelievable decimation. It reminded me of the pictures of Hiroshima in textbooks after the dropping of the nuclear bomb. I always think it is fascinating when I hear people observe the Gulf Coast on the news after a tragedy and say how the people should just move. I wonder where they would go when the water is such an integral part of their subsistence and heritage? The people on the Gulf have much more culturally in common with individuals on the Gulf in neighboring states than they do with those living inland in their own state. Louisiana, especially, has one one of the most uniquely diverse cultures in this country. A key theme in my piece is that BP can compensate them economically, but there is an important cultural and spiritual aspect to their labor that is above financial compensation. The text of my piece is also printed below:

Spiritual Labor and the Big Spill

by Ray Nothstine

Many Americans are proud of where they come from; this is no less true of the people of the Gulf Coast. Human interest stories have gripped viewers and readers following the news about the BP oil spill, which often highlights the locals’ pride in their roots. Sal Sunseri, the owner of P&J Oysters in New Orleans says it well: “The history and culture of the seafood industry in Louisiana is part of the fabric of who we are. The world should not take this lightly.”

Sunseri brings to life an important point about the spiritual and cultural aspect of work that is especially rich on the Gulf Coast. Work in a free economy is an expression of our creativity, virtue, and response to a calling. Christian authors Gerard Berghoef and Lester DeKoster note that “God so arranges work that it develops the soul.”

BP is airing a commercial in which it vows to compensate fishermen and others for the loss of income until the cleanup is completed. This is a good start. But it also serves as a reminder that earnings are secondary to fishermen whose very labor is the preservation of heritage. It is not uncommon to hear fishing crews speaking Cajun French off the coast and in the bayous and marshes of Louisiana. Cajun French, an endangered language, was at one time banned in Louisiana schools. The spill is another threat to communities and a way of life for generations of a proud and sometimes marginalized people.

Vietnamese shrimpers, too, proudly work these waters, many of them refugees from communist aggression. They flourish at shrimping, a trade that generations of families practiced in Vietnam. The Vietnamese were among the first communities to rebuild their lives after Hurricane Katrina, often not waiting for government aid. The Washington Post, in a story on the Vietnamese community, echoed this fact and explained how the spill was especially tragic as a resilient community was forced to await assistance.

BP would be wise to continue to hire as many local crews as possible for cleaning up this disaster. Locals have an extra incentive to assist in a thorough effort since they are most tied to the water. BP needs to be concerned not only with repairing its brand; the company has a clear moral obligation to follow promises with action.

The oil industry in the Gulf Coast accounts for almost a third of all U.S. oil production. The oil company’s contribution to the nation’s energy supply is invaluable, but they have been fighting public relations battles for years. Seen largely as a benefit to the community before the spill, they are now being battered by doubts from many in the region who repeat a common line: “We have made a deal with the devil.”

But many residents and local leaders understand that the oil industry is essential to Louisiana’s economic well being. The governor and legislators have fought a bipartisan battle to preserve jobs while the federal government seeks a moratorium on offshore deep-water drilling.

Many in Mississippi and Louisiana are also understandably weary of an often unresponsive federal bureaucracy. United States Congressman Gene Taylor (D-Miss), who represents the seacoast, said of the federal response, “I’m having Katrina flashbacks,” and called the current administration’s efforts “incompetent.” In a particularly harsh quip Florida Senator George Lemieux (R-Fla) added: “It’s not just oil that’s washing ashore Mr. President, it’s failure.” Asked about the biggest frustration with the federal response, Governor Bobby Jindal (R-La) on day 73 of the spill lamented, “There’s just no sense of urgency.”

There is dismay that a nation that once landed men on the moon, liberated nations, and fed and rebuilt its enemies has few answers: the “yes we can” mantra has not materialized for the Gulf. Out of the darkened waters, there is an opening for an oil company to do the right thing and repair trust with an understandably outraged populace.

The men and women of the Gulf Coast who take to the water to practice their trade deserve the opportunity to flourish in the vast wonder of creation. The many Christians among them are keenly aware of the passage from John 21, when the resurrected Christ from afar tells the disciples to cast their net on the right side of the boat and they are rewarded in abundance. The passage is a reminder that Christ has an intimate knowledge of and concern for even the creatures under the sea. It is a source of hope that the cooperation of private enterprise, government, and local ingenuity can bring healing and the rejuvenation of a treasured way of life.

In this week’s Acton Commentary, Kevin Schmiesing looks at the exchange between Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan and Sen. Tom Coburn over the interpretation of the Constitution’s Commerce Clause.

Elena Kagan’s Revealing Commerce Clause Evasion

by Kevin E. Schmiesing Ph.D.

Many Americans have a vague sense that the United States has drifted far from its constitutional origins. Every once in a while, something happens that prods us to recognize just how far we’ve gone.

Such was the case last week, during the Senate hearings on Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan. One of the most widely circulated C-Span video clips was Senator Tom Coburn’s insistent question as to whether the Constitution’s commerce clause permitted Congress to pass a hypothetical law dictating that all Americans must eat a prescribed number of fruits and vegetables every day.

Kagan was clever enough to understand that what Coburn was really asking was, “Is it possible to justify the continued expansion of congressional powers—in particular recent health care reform legislation—on the basis of the authority granted by the commerce clause?” Kagan replied that the fruits and vegetables measure would be “dumb” law. She didn’t dare suggest that it would be unconstitutional, however, for she rightly recognized that she would be backing herself into a judicial corner. How many laws might she have to strike down as Supreme Court justice if she followed a “strict” interpretation of the Constitution?

Thus we’ve come to a point at which a Supreme Court nominee cannot bring herself to condemn a manifestly totalitarian law, because doing so would be utterly inconsistent with federal jurisprudence over the last 80 years. Kagan’s response shines a spotlight on the fact that the Constitution exercises little restraint upon the activities of our national government. This is dangerous territory.

There are rearguard actions from time to time. The Court invalidated campaign finance reform early this year, judging it to be a violation of first amendment rights—for which the justices were upbraided by President Obama on national television during a State of the Union Address. Yet, by and large, Congress acts with impunity to intervene in our economic affairs, usually justifying itself (in those rare cases when it feels the need to do so) by recourse to the commerce clause.

Perhaps it’s worth revisiting that passage from our founding document, on which millions of pages of federal regulation have been piled. Can it support such weight?

Congress shall have power, it says, “To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes.” That’s it. The original purpose of this directive with respect to commerce “among the several States” was to ensure that there would be no interstate trade barriers. The formation of a vibrant national economy, the framers correctly understood, could not very well proceed when Ohio and Michigan erected tariffs against each other. So, the intent of the commerce clause was to protect the principle of free trade within the United States, leaving other financial and mercantile regulatory authority to each state.

Taking the Constitution seriously is important because the document forms the basis for the rule of law in this country. By ratifying it, the states and the citizens thereof affirmed the truth of a great paradox: Enacting limitations on ourselves is the only way to guarantee lasting and genuine freedom. It was a profoundly moral endeavor. The Christian notion of sin lay at the heart of many Americans’ belief that the tendency toward corruption and aggrandizement in government officials—and the potentially destructive whims of democratic majorities themselves—must be guarded against not only by promotion of personal virtue but also by legal instruments such as constitutional separation of powers and checks and balances.

For the most part, the Supreme Court honored the intent of the commerce clause until the 1930s, when the force of public sentiment and political pressure stemming from the Great Depression began to pry the lid off, loosing its potential as a Pandora’s box of federal government programs reaching into every corner of American life. In 1942, the Court defended a production quota on wheat set by the Department of Agriculture, upholding the prosecution of an Ohio farmer for growing too much. When he used his excess, the decision explained, he wouldn’t be buying that amount on the market. His flouting of the law thus affected interstate commerce.

Quod erat demonstrandum: The government can tell you what and how much to grow. Why can it not also tell you that you must purchase health insurance (and therefore what kind, and from which approved vendors)? And why can’t it tell you what and how much you may eat?

Our hope lies in our belief that, when a law is “dumb” enough, nine fellow Americans on the Supreme Court will have the good sense to strike it down. But we will be dependent on their sense alone. Although they will invoke the Constitution as a fig leaf for whatever judgment they render, we know the truth: Its value as a curb on government action—and therefore as a safeguard of freedom—was all-but-destroyed long ago.

My commentary this week is a simple message about the importance of returning to our founding principles and embracing the liberty granted to all of us as Americans. Independence Day should always serve as a significant reminder of the freedom narrative of this country that has provided so many people with opportunities to flourish and live out their dreams:

America’s Destiny Must Be Freedom

Ralph Waldo Emerson described America as “the land that has never become, but is always in the act of becoming.” Many Americans don’t feel that way as pessimism has replaced a once vibrant optimism about the future. Economic malaise, crippling debt, and a mammoth oil gush in the Gulf Coast are daily reminders of seemingly unmovable obstacles.

Bob Herbert wrote a New York Times column echoing the sentiment of an aimless America titled “When Greatness Slips Away.” While many claim to have the answers to our economic woes and lack of confidence, we would do best to return to the principles of the Declaration of Independence, the American Founding, and our freedom narrative. In past crises, they have been sources of American endurance and strength. They can be again.

Those sacred words from the Declaration—“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”—have been an inspiration to billions of people at home and abroad for centuries. Freedom from excessive centralization of power and the right of the citizenry to flourish without undue interference are hallmarks of what it means to be American. And while the federal government has used activism for good at times, most notably for securing civil rights in the American South, it is revealing itself more and more as the obstacle to progress.

Many in the academy and the modern left scoff at what they call the “Horatio Alger myth.” Alger wrote stories such as “Ragged Dick” and “Only an Irish Boy.” He told stories of poor children achieving the American dream through hard work, determination, and virtue. But Alger also depicted an important spiritual component to his impoverished characters. He gave them dignity and natural rights, just as our founding document did. His tales reflected the kind of egalitarianism that asserts that the value and dignity of a destitute human person is equal to that of another born into prominence and prosperity. These ideas grew right out of our religious heritage and founding.

But if Alger’s stories were not myths before, they will be soon. Future generations’ enjoyment of the liberty to flourish is in jeopardy. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, last week called the $13 trillion national debt the “biggest threat to our national security.” Annual interest on the national debt in 2012 will grow larger than the entire defense budget. Currently 43 cents of every federal dollar spent is borrowed.

This kind of dependency is antithetical to our tradition of self-reliance. Pick up any honest textbook about American history and the march of America is about freedom and opportunity. On the day of the invasion of the greatest army of liberation ever assembled, General Dwight D. Eisenhower told his armed forces “The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you.” These men are often called “The Greatest Generation.

Succeeding generations may call our own “the debt generation” as their dreams become enslaved to deficits so colossal that they sap their entrepreneurial spirit, savings, and earning potential.

Big government activists are already using the BP oil spill to double down on their claim that the federal government is too small, even while the federal response is crippled by a multilayered bureaucratic decision making process and excessive regulation. Others say the BP oil spill is the perfect sign that America’s economic and moral might has peaked.

In his 1993 Inaugural address, President Clinton said, “There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America.” It’s a simple yet profound point. Similarly, the primary reason Russell Kirk penned The Roots of American Order in 1974 was to remind his country of the moral bedrock at its base, and to thereby show the way to how it could maintain greatness. In the first chapter, Kirk quotes a passage from the book of Job saying if the nation lacks foundation and order “even the light is like darkness.”

As American citizens pontificate about the future of America this July 4th, they should ask themselves what they can do to curb the contraction of liberty and promote its expansion. It is the citizens, thankfully, who will decide America’s destiny.