“While president, Calvin Coolidge warned Americans that if it was the federal government that came to their mind when they thought of ‘the government,’ it would prove costly,” writes Ray Nothstine in this week’s Acton Commentary. But as Nothstine points out, everywhere we turn the federal government is increasingly visible and intrusive. The full text of his essay follows. Subscribe to the free, weekly Acton News & Commentary and other publications here.
On National Review Online, Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg reflects on President Obama’s State of the Union address last night, and flags the “reality-denial” that is expressed by “a few token references to free enterprise and rewarding individual initiative (to reassure us we’re still living in America instead of just another declining European social democracy).” More:
Judging from the president’s remarks, you’d never guess we just had a negative quarter of economic growth; or that the unemployment rate just ticked up again; or that millions of Americans have simply given up looking for work; or that Obamacare is (as predicted) already driving up the health-care costs that the president claimed are falling (just ask those businesses busy shifting thousands of employees into part-time positions in order to cap their exploding health-care costs); or that . . . again, I fear I am belaboring the point.
What’s the plan from the White House?
… we hear the president tell us, yet again, that we need to pump more money into universities and colleges. Never mind the higher-education bubble, which is going to implode sooner than most people think. We’re also told that we need to develop high-speed rail. One wonders if anyone has asked people in the People’s Republic of California how that’s working out. Then there is the apparently endless promise of green energy, which, despite the billions of taxpayer dollars poured into it, hasn’t actually created that many jobs at all. In addition to all this, we are now informed we must raise the minimum wage. Never mind all the evidence underscoring just how much damage minimum-wage laws do to the job prospects of the poor and many young people, not to mention newly arrived immigrants who just want a chance to start working.
Read “Rhetoric versus Reality” by Samuel Gregg on NRO.
And pick up a copy of Gregg’s new book Becoming Europe: Economic Decline, Culture, and How America Can Avoid a European Future here.
Thanks to RealClearPolicy for linking.
The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center finds that a majority of Americans now believe the federal government threatens their own personal rights and freedoms:
The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, conducted Jan. 9-13 among 1,502 adults, finds that 53% think that the federal government threatens their own personal rights and freedoms while 43% disagree.
In March 2010, opinions were divided over whether the government represented a threat to personal freedom; 47% said it did while 50% disagreed. In surveys between 1995 and 2003, majorities rejected the idea that the government threatened people’s rights and freedoms.
The growing view that the federal government threatens personal rights and freedoms has been led by conservative Republicans. Currently 76% of conservative Republicans say that the federal government threatens their personal rights and freedoms and 54% describe the government as a “major” threat. Three years ago, 62% of conservative Republicans said the government was a threat to their freedom; 47% said it was a major threat.
The fact that 38% of Democrats say the government poses a threat to personal rights and freedoms and 16% view it as a major threat, shows that it’s not just a partisan issue. But while there may be agreement that the federal government threatens our rights and freedoms, there is likely to be divergence of opinion on which rights and freedoms are being threatened. Rather than just having people respond with yes or no to the question, “Federal government threatens your personal freedom?”, it would be helpful for respondents to explain what they mean.
We could, for instance, have them go down the list of rights in the Constitution’s Bill of Rights and point out which they feel are threatened. Like most Americans, I’m no legal scholar. But here is how I would respond:
Joe Carter has done a marvelous job of outlining the details surrounding the Obama administration’s abortion/contraceptive mandate. In a recent cover story for WORLD Magazine, these details are brought to life through a series of snapshots of real businesses and non-profits facing a real choice to either violate their Christian consciences or become economic martyrs.
Thus far, Hobby Lobby has received much of the national spotlight—due in part to their visibility in the marketplace and corresponding outspokenness. In the WORLD article, we begin to see the bigger picture, beginning with Chris and Paul Griesedieck, brothers and owners of American Pulverizer, a small, 105-year-old, family-owned manufacturing company, which could face fines of up to $5 million per year if the owners choose to be guided by Christian principles above economic penalties:
Like Hobby Lobby and other plaintiffs, the Griesediecks filed a lawsuit against HHS. They say the mandate violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (a law designed to protect against government infringement of religious freedom) and their First Amendment rights to free exercise of religion. The brothers made a simple argument based on Christian principles: “It would be sinful for us to pay for services that have a significant risk of causing the death of embryonic lives.”
…Frank Manion—an attorney at the American Center for Law and Justice—represents the Griesediecks, and says the federal government is imposing a stark choice on his clients and all Christian employers who oppose the mandate: “Abandon their beliefs in order to stay in business, or abandon their business in order to stay true to their beliefs.”
Abraham Kuyper famously wrote that “there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, ‘Mine!’” This view may seem uncontroversial to some, yet it is increasingly seen by our scrupulous government overlords to be irrelevant to First Amendment protections: (more…)
Last night, there was a moment at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte that may have alarmed some. The line from a video produced by the host city of Charlotte, declared, “government is the only thing we all belong to.” While some have simply used the line as a reference point for partisan purposes, it needs to be widely discussed. I have to admit I found the words profoundly disturbing. Not because I blame Democrats as a whole but rather whoever penned the script in the video really had no understanding that the line was troubling. I am sure we could say that of too many Americans regardless of political affiliation. In fact, partisans are more apt to embrace this message if their guy or gal is in power. It looks like the Obama political campaign at least felt uncomfortable with the language, as they wasted no time distancing themselves from the quote.
The line omits the whole notion in our Declaration of Independence that, “We our endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights.” It flips the meaning on its head and posits that our rights and responsibilities flow out of government. The Constitutional message of “We the People” is becoming lost on a large segment of our population. The tentacles of D.C. now vastly stretch across the land acting more in a suffocating fashion rather than a partnering one. Truthfully, the amount of debt Americans now owe and the centralization that is crippling this nation makes the statement in the video accurate not in theory but certainly more so in reality. Many are now serfs in support of profligate spending and the entitlement culture. Sadly, the longer we delay our debt crisis the truth of the line from the convention becomes actualized. An email from Stephen Miller, a spokesmen for U.S. Senator Jeff Sessions, noted that the government “awarded a recruitment worker for overcoming the ‘mountain pride’ of people living in rural North Carolina” in order to expand enrollment for food stamps. Our government that is broke is aggressively recruiting more people for handouts.
It’s a sad reduction of the human person, when a worldview creeps in that you find a deeper community and deeper meaning in government.
The disconnect is deeply troubling and needs to be highlighted by deeper discussions and education about our civics. The whole idea of establishing an earthly kingdom is what the Founders rejected. Ownership belongs to the people. The government works for us and receives its direction from us. We are the ones who give the government its consent.
There is a clash of worldviews all around us, and unlike before in American history, they are not competing American worldviews. Language like this seems quite alien to our American experiment and ideals.
On National Review Online, Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg discusses remarks made by President Barack Obama at a March 30 campaign stop at the University of Vermont. From the White House transcript of the speech, here is some of what the president said:
The American story is not just about what we do on our own. Yes, we’re rugged individualists and we expect personal responsibility, and everybody out there has got to work hard and carry their weight. But we also have always understood that we wouldn’t win the race for new jobs and businesses and middle-class security if we were just applying some you’re-on-your-own economics. It’s been tried in our history and it hasn’t worked. It didn’t work when we tried it in the decade before the Great Depression. It didn’t work when we tried it in the last decade. We just tried this. What they’re peddling has been tried. It did not work. (Applause.)
Gregg on NRO:
… it’s especially noticeable that when insisting we must take care of our neighbor the president said nothing about the role of volunteer associations — or any non-state formation whatsoever — in addressing social and economic challenges. Nor did he mention anything about the often-selfless work of loving our neighbor undertaken by the same religious organizations whose constitutionally guaranteed (and natural) liberty to live, act, and serve others according to their beliefs is being unreasonably constricted by the more ghoulish segments of his administration in the name of “choice.”
Like all good Rawlsians, President Obama finds it hard to conceptualize the possibility that private communities and associations might often be better at helping our neighbor in need than governments. Instead, his instinct is to search immediately for a political state-focused solution. If the president invested some time in exploring the concept of social justice, he would discover that its earliest articulators — mostly mid-19th-century Italian Catholic theologians – thought it should be primarily realized through associations and institutions of civil society with the government playing a supportive, but normally background role.
Read “So Who Is Our Keeper, Mr. President?” by Samuel Gregg on NRO.
In the Spring 2011 issue of Religion & Liberty, I wrote about the Christian response to disaster relief, focusing on Hurricane Katrina and the April 2011 tornadoes that decimated communities in the deep South and Joplin, Mo. in May. Included in the story is a contrast of church relief with the federal government response. From the R&L piece:
In Shoal Creek, Ala., a frustrated Carl Brownfield called the federal response “all red tape.” The Birmingham News ran a story on May 10 reporting that a “low number” of Alabama residents had applied for federal assistance for various reasons including being “leery of government help.”
Why the leeriness to reach out for federal assistance? For one, just read this AP story about the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and their effort to collect debts or overpayment checks that were spent years ago by people trying to rebuild their lives after Hurricane Katrina. One can understand the skepticism to apply for federal assistance and it certainly highlights the mismanagement of taxpayer money at FEMA.
As a Katrina evacuee myself, I have written a lot about disaster response on the PowerBlog and elsewhere. Here is just one post that compares the private sector role to the federal disaster response.
In my commentary this week, I used Louisiana as one of the backdrops to shine the light on government greed. I first became fascinated with the political scene in the Pelican State when I moved down to the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
I stayed up late one night in 1996 watching C-Span2 while Woody Jenkins, the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate, appeared to have his election stolen. I was hooked from that point on.
Former Louisiana governor Earl Long once remarked, “When I die I want to be buried in Louisiana so I can stay active in politics.” Former Congressman Billy Tauzin said of his state: “One half of Louisiana is under water and the other half is under indictment.” Former governor Edwin Edwards, who is mentioned in the commentary, has a fascinating book profiling his antics and political corruption in The Last Hayride.
Louisiana has undergone a remarkable transformation and it is covered superbly by Jim Geraghty at National Review in “The Storm Calmer.” The transformation provides wisdom for the nation today. My commentary is printed below.
Government Greed Needs an ‘Occupation’ Too
When it comes to political crookedness and graft, Louisiana is infamous. The New York Times just profiled Edwin Edwards, whose reputation earned him the nickname “Fast Eddie.” The former governor of the Pelican State recently released after a 10-year prison sentence for racketeering naturally wants back in the political ring. A resident displayed the love many still have for the former lawmaker, telling the Times, “We all knew he was going to steal, but he told us he was going to do it.”
Edwards serves as one of the most flagrant examples of government greed, enriching countless cronies along with himself. But he is not alone. The Occupy Wall Street movement focuses on “corporate greed,” but the public sector variety, though it draws less media attention, is equally reprehensible.
Eminent domain abuse, bloated public pensions, deficit spending—which simply generate calls for future tax increases—and a tax code that discourages saving and investing, are just a few examples of government greed. The 19th century British preacher and evangelist Charles Spurgeon once remarked, “You say, ‘If I had a little more, I should be very satisfied.’ You make a mistake. If you are not content with what you have, you would not be satisfied if it were doubled.”
His audience was the individual. But Spurgeon’s warning applies to a government demanding more wealth that should remain private and more of the public trust. Government excess and the way in which it mercilessly suctions revenue away from Main Street are alarming indeed. According to The World Bank’s annual Doing Business report, the United States no longer ranks as a top 10 country for starting a business; Rwanda is higher on the list. Half a century ago, business rapidly mobilized to help launch the greatest army of liberation in world history; now the nation’s private sector faces an uncertain future.
Today the Occupy Wall Street movement and its echo chamber in the media denounce corporate America. But a smaller headline in Bloomberg News about Washington edging out San Jose, Calif., as the wealthiest U.S. metropolitan area raised eyebrows, too. The total compensation package for a federal employee in the beltway now exceeds $126,000. There are many hard working and patriotic federal employees, but as the federal government payroll increasingly coincides with a diminishing private sector, government employees are rapidly moving closer to the 1 percent.
More disturbing perhaps is a quote from the president of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce who declared, “Wall Street has moved to K Street.” The mammoth increase in federal laws and regulation has generated an upsurge in the number of lobbyists and lawyers to manage the federal government’s far-reaching bureaucratic tentacles.
Greed of all sorts should be denounced. Unique to neither business nor government, its perennial presence illuminates the unchanged heart of humankind. For that reason the Founders understood that the power of government must be limited and virtue magnified. During the benediction at the Acton Institute’s Annual Dinner last week, Rev. Ren Broekhuizen offered this rightly famous quote from Abraham Kuyper: “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’” He implored the assembled to mount their own righteous “occupation” of Wall Street, the government, business, and all of society.
Just last week, the 84-year-old former governor Edwin Edwards joked with well wishers and basked in the limelight at a parade during the International Rice Festival in Crowley, La. That same day Gov. Bobby Jindal coasted to reelection against a crowded field with nearly 66 percent of the vote. Jindal’s approval in part stems from sweeping reforms to antiquated laws that bred government greed and corruption. After Katrina and the BP oil spill, it was all the more apparent to Louisianans that the old way of doing things was toxic. Greed and corruption intensify suffering in a time of crisis.
As America faces its current economic crisis, Louisiana’s experience is instructive. Solutions can be found not in centralized power and burdensome regulation, which facilitate and reward government greed, but in framing sensible laws and reinvigorating a culture of virtue in business and government alike.
In this week’s Acton Commentary, “Solyndra and the False Hope of Green Jobs” I look at the original problem with federally funded Green Jobs. The Solyndra debacle has been called a “microcosm of Obamanomics,” an example of what always happens when the Federal Government starts handing out $500 million checks. That’s true, but it’s a microcosm of something more — of an economy that’s lost it’s understanding of vocation. We stumble around trying to “create jobs” by Congressional action without really knowing what a job is.
A concern for jobs, simply, is dangerous. The dignity of a man’s employment does not come from his salary per se. Rather, it comes from his nature — man is called to work, to till the soil, from the very beginning, and the nobility of his labor is wrapped up in both the activity itself and in its ends. It does not befit a man to do work that is of no consequence.
Sadly, in the rush to “create jobs” by government stimulus, little thought is given to what work really is, or how more of it can be created. It is considered enough that a job run from nine in the morning till five in the afternoon, and that it come with a regular paycheck.
The green jobs movement is especially guilty of this unthinking attitude — indeed, it has never been defined what a green job is, and various bodies give widely varying definitions. If it’s not known broadly what a green job is, it won’t be possible to know whether all green jobs are compatible with the dignity of human labor, and whether governments are really capable of spurring their creation.
The now ubiquitous pictures of the president’s visit to Solyndra last year perfectly illustrate our now-empty conception of work: it is the U.S. Government that now creates jobs, not the entrepreneur.
The risks taken within the free market by an entrepreneur are calculated to yield a profit. That profit is, as Pope John Paul II put it, “the result of the overall expansion of work and the wealth of society.” The entrepreneur must create meaningful jobs, or else face the consequences imposed by the market.
Governments, because of their coercive power, do not feel the consequences of failure. The Department of Energy is the entrepreneur’s antagonist: it has just taken $535 million and flushed it, over the course of two years, down the drain. The loss was unintentional, but predictable, and we should expect that it will happen again, because the department’s work as a regulatory body is to consume, not to produce—as long as it is pretended that a job is nothing more than a desk and a salary, “jobs” will be created at a loss.
No arm of the government can purchase jobs as commodities and promote the common good, because such a purchase commodifies the worker and strips him of the dignity of real work.
Full piece here.
Acton’s tireless director of research Samuel Gregg has a post up at NRO’s The Corner in reaction to yesterday’s bad poverty numbers (46.2 million Americans live below the poverty line now—2.6 million more than last year). Gregg is ultimately not surprised about the increase, because not only does the American welfare state produce long term dependence on governmental support, but the huge debt incurred by poverty programs tends to slow economic growth.
It is now surely clear that the trillions of dollars expended on welfare programs since the not-so-glorious days of the 1960s have not apparently made much of a dent in significantly changing the ratio of Americans in poverty.
In some instances, America’s welfare apparatus may have prevented some people (especially the elderly) from falling into abject poverty. There is, however, very little evidence that it has helped millions of people out of relative poverty. There is also plenty of data to indicate that many welfare programs have produced intergenerational dependency on the state—a point that even Bill Clinton seemed to have grasped by the mid-1990s.
Gregg then warns against the temptation to double down on government-as-the-answer, arguing that we don’t have the fiscal leeway to experiment as we did in the 1960s.
We need to keep these serious failures of America’s welfare state in mind because these new poverty numbers will almost certainly be used as an argument by some people of good will (as well as those whose motives are far less noble) to resist any reductions in welfare spending, despite America’s far-from-healthy debt and deficit situation. Yet the sheer size of government spending on entitlement programs (by far the biggest item in the federal government’s budget) makes cuts in these areas inescapable if—I repeat, if—our political masters are serious about wanting to balance the government’s books.
Indeed, such cuts are assuming an ever-increasing urgency in light of the studies which continue to appear indicating that crushing levels of public and government debt run the risk of significantly impeding growth. That’s worrying, not least because a slowdown in growth will hurt those in poverty far more than the wealthy. Strong growth rates are one of the most powerful antidotes to poverty – just ask anyone living in mainland China or India. More welfare spending is simply not the answer.
Full post here.