Tim Dunkin Some of you may remember James Carvilleâ€™s rather blunt expression of what he understood to be the priory issues in the 1992 election when he said, â€œThe economy, stupid!â€ This was in response to his view that then-President George H.W. Bush was talking about foreign policy issues more than economic ones, and was intended to serve as a bit of back-handed campaign advice for Bushâ€™s opponent, Bill Clinton. Since then, the expression, in various permutations, has become a trope in American political discourse, intended to convey the impression that its target just doesnâ€™t get it, they just havenâ€™t figured out whatâ€™s really important in an election, and is chasing rabbit trails by pursuing unimportant topics.
So it is in the present electoral season. Once again, we find ourselves in the midst of a deep recession (even worse than that of 1991), this one created, prolonged, and sustained by the horrid fiscal policies of both major parties, but especially the Presidentâ€™s party when it controlled both houses of Congress. And once again, the refrain is that this election is, and must be, all about the economy. Anything else is a distraction. Serious candidates wonâ€™t let themselves be sidetracked by unimportant matters.
And so continues the great political shell game whereby both parties, when in office, will pursue policies that will maintain the gradual slowdown of the American economy by burdening it with increasing taxes, regulations, fees, mandates, more social spending, and other hoops that economic producers will have to jump through to continue to be able to do business. Meanwhile, when the inevitable economic slowdowns catch up with this, as they invariably will, the party currently out of power can use the distress and anger of the electorate to toss out the other. Hence, a couple of terms with a Republican in office will be followed by a couple with a Democrat, and then a couple more with a Republican, and then a couple more with a Democrat, and on and on. They both get their turn in due time, because theyâ€™re both playing the game and setting the rules.
All because self-appointed â€œinformed, intelligentâ€ commenters convince themselves and others that the â€œitâ€™s the economy, stupidâ€ conventional wisdom is foundational to prosperity and growth.
But itâ€™s not.
Instead, the refrain should be â€œItâ€™s about liberty, stupid!â€
There are two main reasons for this. First, there is the simple fact that having a good economy really doesnâ€™t mean much when you have no individual liberty to go with it. It strikes me as being rather pointless to be able to afford property, yet not be able to enjoy or use it without having to pay thousands in fees and fines, jump through reams of regulatory hoops before I can develop it, while having to constantly worry that it can be taken from me or otherwise rendered useless at the drop of a hat if the EPA decides to declare it a wetland or a local government decides it can make more tax revenue from taking it from me and giving it to the city commissionerâ€™s brother-in-law to turn it into a strip mall.
Each of us ought to ask ourselves whether having a good-paying job in a robust economy would matter if we could no longer say what we want, worship how we want, travel where we want, own what we want, live how we want, and be free from having government agents bust down our door for whatever reason they see fit. Is being able to afford to buy all kinds of baubles and trinkets to decorate our homes or entertain ourselves really more important than being able to freely exercise our fundamental natural liberties as free citizens?
And make no mistake â€“ this is a question that each of us is being asked, whether we realize it or not. We cannot say we are a free people â€“ not when we have to allow the government to take nudie pictures of us before we can get on an airplane; not when the government has allotted to itself the power to decide who gets what medical treatment or even if they get that treatment; not when the government passes a law at the behest of big agro companies like Monsanto that can be used to criminalize growing a garden on your own property, and selling or even giving the food to your neighbors; not when the government arrogates to itself the right to tell us what kind of light bulbs we use in our own homes. Is all of this really less important than whether one candidate or the other is going to shave a few percentage points off of the marginal tax rates?
Of course, this leads to the second point, which is that the conundrum given above wonâ€™t pertain for very long, for the simple reason that without individual liberty, we will lose all economic liberty as well, as Milton Friedman so presciently observed decades ago. You cannot have the latter without the former. When the government is in a position to control your daily life to the extent that the U.S. government does today, the loss of economic liberty will also be well under way â€“ as we can observe around us. When government can unconstitutionally tell you what to do in one sphere of life, it can do so in all the others as well.
When you lose economic liberty, you lose economic prosperity at the functional individual level. The examples of this are legion the world over and throughout history. Why do you think the Soviet Union, despite its much-touted â€œwonder growthâ€ after WWII, nevertheless provided no prosperity to the large masses of its people, and eventually collapsed under its own inefficiencies? Look at China today. In spite of the superficial appearance of prosperity in made-for-TV cities like Shanghai, Chinaâ€™s prosperity nevertheless extends only to a very small cadre of Party officials and officially preferred cronies, while this appearance of prosperity rides on the backs of overtaxed peasants and outright slaves working in factories, none of whom have any individual or social liberty to speak of. For them, there is no prosperity, only misery.
Looking to history, we see the Roman Empire â€“ which in its heyday actually had a much more vibrant and broad-based commercial economy than many people think â€“ sinking into economic doldrums at almost the same time as its government became more and more autocratic and personal liberty became non-existent, even to the point where many professions became hereditary â€“ not by choice, but because the Roman government enforced a sort of professional caste system onto its people so as to ensure that the governmentâ€™s needs for money, arms, and other state necessities were met. Itâ€™s little wonder that many Romans â€“ citizens, mind you, of the wealthiest and most powerful state ever relative to its surroundings and time period â€“ simply gave up and went over to the barbarians who were soon to extirpate the western half of that Empire.
Hence, all of this talk about the vital importance of economic issues is somewhat misplaced. If weâ€™re really concerned about the economy, then we should be concerned about liberty, first and foremost. We have to break out of the conceptual box that the governing elites from both parties have set around us, and start realizing that until we regain our liberty, our economy is, of necessity, going to keep getting worse, regardless of who is in office. It only makes sense. When you punish the successful, when you oppress the producers and the workers, you destroy their incentive, and even drive many of them away. You cannot legislate a nation into prosperity, because the legislation itself often works to destroy the drive of those being legislated upon. Until weâ€™re free in our personal and social lives, we wonâ€™t really see true economic prosperity again. Instead, weâ€™ll end up like Europe â€“ broke, over-regulated, unfree, and happy when the unemployment rate drops back to 10%. Do we really want that? If not, then letâ€™s get serious about addressing the root issue â€“ liberty.