Paul Greenberg
The most revealing comment made during the not very revealing "debate" among Republican presidential candidates came from the moderator, CNN's John King, who asked the line-up of GOP hopefuls to explain what their plan for the economy was.

The question was revealing, however unintentionally, because of its underlying assumption: that the economy needs a presidentially provided plan if it's ever going to fully revive.

You might have thought the idea of a planned economy went out with the fall of communism, or at least of the late unlamented Soviet Union. That was a couple of decades ago, but even though empires collapse, the assumptions on which they were based persist. Now the need for a planned economy turns up as the unspoken premise of, of all things, an American presidential debate. Bad ideas don't die; they just mutate and emerge in a different era and environment, often enough incognito, their ideological origins unrecognized.

It's an old joke -- and an all too true one: Know how to make God laugh?

Answer: Make plans.

How strange: What may have been the greatest economic expansion in this country's history, the explosion of American economic growth during the latter part of the 19th century, took place without an over-all government plan. How about that?

Instead, all that growth spurt took place through a wild mix of public and private investment, of entrepreneurial innovation and good old-fashioned, all-American corruption. (It wasn't always easy to tell the difference.)

Result: The economy grew dramatically through a succession of booms and busts, fits and starts, panics and peaks without anybody in the federal government planning it. You'd think it was a free country.

By the end of that period, a nation ravaged by a terrible civil war that left a good third of it in ruins had emerged into the 20th century as an industrial, agricultural and even something of a financial giant. And nobody had planned it that way. Nobody could have planned it that way.

The growth of the American economy in those years was so great, so dynamic and dramatic, that the country attracted still more immigrants by the millions from still more parts of the world. All flocked to the Land of Opportunity. How could that possibly have happened without a comprehensive government plan? And yet it did.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.