WASHINGTON -- In every four-year cycle there are about 1 million American elections, most of which involve marginal differences between conventional candidates. This year's South Carolina Senate contest is one that matters.
It will choose the successor to retiring Sen. Fritz Hollings, 82, a six-term Democrat. If his successor is Rep. Jim DeMint, a Republican, the Senate will acquire a distinctive voice.
His congressional district, once called ``the textile capital of the world,'' seethes with resentment of free trade. Yet he has not flinched from supporting free trade, and now no district in the nation has as high a per-capita investment by international companies, such as BMW and Michelin.
Having served the three terms that he told voters would be his limit, DeMint, 52, wants to take to the Senate his concern about the rising trajectory of American dependency on government. With the Heritage Foundation, a Washington think tank, DeMint has developed an ``index of dependency.''
America is in, he says, ``an eleventh-hour crisis'' of democracy because it recently reached a point where a majority are ``dependent on the federal government for their health care, education, income or retirement.'' Tax reforms, from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush, have removed many Americans from the income tax rolls: ``Today, the majority of Americans can vote themselves more generous government benefits at little or no cost to themselves.'' DeMint asks: ``How can any free nation survive when a majority of its citizens, now dependent on government services, no longer have the incentive to restrain the growth of government?''
DeMint's fear, that dependency produces ``learned helplessness,'' echoes Tocqueville's warning about government keeping people ``fixed irrevocably in childhood,'' rendering ``the employment of free will less useful and more rare.'' It is, Tocqueville said, ``difficult to conceive how men who have entirely renounced the habit of directing themselves could succeed at choosing well those who will lead them.''
In the context of a welfare state devoted to assuaging the insecurities and augmenting the competencies of its citizens, conservatism's challenge is to use government -- collective action -- to promote individualism. DeMint believes dependency can be countered by policies that foster attitudes and aptitudes requisite for independence. He favors applying to public policy the axiom that ``no one washes a rental car.'' Which means: Ownership encourages rational maintenance of resources. Consider the pertinence of this to health care.