What’s more important: the wellbeing of each individual citizen in America, or the wellbeing of government?
One of the reasons that the United States occupies a distinguished place in the world is because the American founders prioritized the wellbeing of the individual person. Government, the founders believed, should be the servant of individual people. This was a rather significant departure from the view that individual people should be the servant of their all-important government.
Unfortunately, many Americans today prioritize the wellbeing of government above all else. Take for example our President, Barack Obama.
Throughout the debate over our nation’s debt and deficit, President Obama has made it clear that politicians and bureaucrats must be permitted to go on spending money as they see fit. Any limitations on government borrowing or government’s ability to collect taxes will result in calamity, whereas borrowing and taxing will enable all the societal goodness that can exist.
The President’s vision defies historical fact. But here’s a quote from a press conference on July 16th, where he addressed the public pressure to curb government spending, that he and the Congress have been facing:
“….Some of these decisions are tough…but they don’t require us to gut Medicare or Social Security…they don’t require us to stop helpin’ young people go to college…they don’t require us to stop, you know, helpin’ families that have got a disabled child…they don’t require us to violate our obligations to our veterans…and they don’t require quote-un-quote job killing tax cuts…”
Much of this is simply rhetorical. Nobody has proposed “gutting” Medicare or Social Security. Nobody in Congress has suggested that college students or parents of disabled children should be abandoned.
But notice President Obama’s choice of words about taxation – “job killing tax cuts.” Nobody who has even a remote acquaintance with basic economic concepts actually believes that allowing private individuals to retain more of their own wealth decreases “job creation.” Indeed it’s just the opposite – the more wealth that individuals can keep for themselves, the more likely it is that they will invest money in business enterprises that will lead to employment opportunities. Yet, there he is, the leader of the free world, fussing over alleged “job killing tax cuts.”
This “government is everything” mindset doesn’t begin and end in Washington. Last week I happened to catch Rush Limbaugh engaged in conversation with “Carl,” a 24 year old caller to his talk show who was arguing that we all must sacrifice more (especially “rich” people) to keep the government goodness flowing. A portion of the conversation went like this: Carl: A tax cut depletes necessary revenue needed to keep the government operational and functioning.
RUSH: Carl, that's not what a tax cut is. A tax cut is you work for a living, and you are paid X. At the present, you have a tax rate -- let's just pick one, may not be accurate -- of 30%. Which means that 30% of every dollar you earn goes to Washington, but the money starts with you. It's yours. You earned it. You did what was necessary to be paid that money.
RUSH: If a tax cut happens, and your tax rate goes to 20%, then all of a sudden you get to keep 80¢ of every dollar you earned rather than 70¢ of every dollar you earned. How in the world is that spending?
Carl: Because when I spend that money out of my own paycheck, that's money that I spend on my own life. When the government spends my tax dollars, they're spending it on necessary infrastructure that's to keep the entire government running, to keep schools running…
RUSH: No... Wait a minute. So are you telling me that you believe that it is more important for government to spend whatever money it has than it is for you to spend whatever money you earn?
Carl: The government spending tax dollars benefits everybody, whereas me spending my own money benefits me…
Apparently Carl hasn’t been taught that when he spends his own money, it benefits the person who grows his food, manufactures his clothes, and so forth.
Rush’s conversation reminds me of a question I recently encountered while serving as a panelist at a university forum on economic growth. As a student took to the microphone and noted that she had read my bio on my website, she stated “your degrees are in literature and philosophy, and you’re not even an economist, so why do you think you have the right to speak about economics?”
I reminded the woman that in America, I have the right to speak about nearly anything; the university had the right to not invite me; and she had the right to not listen. I also suggested that the question about which is more important – individual people, or the government – is really a philosophical question more than anything else, so as a trained philosopher I was probably qualified to participate in the event.
President Obama will likely never embrace this “people before government” philosophy. But will America ever return to it?