Recapturing the pilgrim spirit

Posted: Nov 28, 2005 12:05 AM

Every year the day before Thanksgiving, the Wall Street Journal publishes an excerpt from the journal of one of the pilgrim settlers of the Plymouth Colony in 1620.

The journal record depicts the harsh new reality in which these settlers found themselves, and that "if they looked behind them, there was a mighty ocean which they had passed, and was now as a main bar or gulph to separate them from all the civil parts of the world."

For those who established the first settlements in this country, it was more important to be free than to be secure. Fortified with their faith and their bible, they left what was known and secure to build what they thought would be a better life in an unsettled, harsh and as yet unformed new land.

Today, almost 400 years later, there's a sense in the country that things are not as they should be. In the latest Harris poll, only 27 percent responded that they thought the country is on the right track and 68 percent said we're on the wrong track.

As we begin the holiday season and give thanks for what we have, I think the nation's great challenge is to recapture the spirit of those pilgrims.

Recent headlines about the problems at General Motors say a lot about the state of affairs in America.

When the American automobile industry began and General Motors was founded a century ago, the federal government accounted for around three cents of every dollar that our economy produced. Today the take of the federal government has grown to around twenty cents for every dollar produced.

Much of this growth in government reflects what I would call the transformation from a culture of responsibility to a culture of entitlement.

The assertion of union power and the growth of the welfare state transferred the sense of responsibility for solving personal problems from individuals and families to organizations. The government will take care of you. The company will take care of you. The union will take care of you.

Company pension plans, company health care plans, Social Security, Medicare, and welfare emerged from a mentality that life's uncertainties could be taken care of with the right institutions. We then built on top of this a layer of social legislation constructed on the premise that not only could life's uncertainties submit to social engineering, but so could all sense of social injustice.

General Motors carries all the baggage of that world and has become more like a government agency than a business. Spending more time thinking about satisfying entitlement claims than thinking like entrepreneurs in a world in which nothing can be taken for granted, you have to wonder whether GM really has any hope of transforming itself.

But, if General Motors is a mirror of the country's problems, and its survival is in question, what does this say about the country as a whole? We might compare General Motors' predicament to that of Wal-Mart.

Wal-Mart is being attacked for not being General Motors, which is flirting with bankruptcy. The protesters want Wal-Mart to submit to the unions and to the take-care-of-you-for-life benefit plans that are driving GM and similar older corporations into oblivion.

The outcome of Wal-Mart's dilemma will reflect how courageous and entrepreneurial the management really is. One possibility is that they will cave to political pressure, meaning they will become the next generation's General Motors.

Or, they can be courageous and tell the truth. Talk about the new economy, the need for market-based health care reform where individual's get the same tax treatment as company's for health care purchases, the need to evolve benefits out of companies and letting individuals take care of themselves, and the need for private Social Security accounts.

When I first went off welfare, I took a part-time job with a food distribution company. I loved the work and the opportunity. Soon the union workers were onto me, pressuring me to join. I was just tasting the beauty of freedom and had little interest in any new paternalistic arrangements. Increasing pressure from them drove me out of the company.

During this year's holiday season, let's remember the pilgrims and what made this country great.

A constitution designed to protect individual liberty, a bible that provides a roadmap for the good and moral life, and a will to take personal responsibility for improving one's own life and for making the world a better place.