Freedom Watch

Who Built America?

The rebuilding begins this November.

By 8.13.12

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President Obama recently made a stunning remark about business owners in America's free enterprise economy. After dismissing the hard work and ingenuity of successful individuals, the president said, "If you've got a business, you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen." Who? Ultimately, the government.

Yet this was only the latest version of the president's four-year disparagement of American entrepreneurialism. In 2008, then-candidate Obama said he intended to "spread the wealth around" -- not his own wealth through voluntary transactions, of course, but the earnings belonging to American families through coercive redistribution. In April 2009, he claimed that the founding principles on which America was built are too weak to withstand 21st century pressures. He called our free economy a house built upon sand, destroyed when the financial storm of 2008 hit. America must be reconstructed, he asserted, upon a "new foundation" of "pillars" hewn from the solid rock of big government.

The agenda he promoted demonstrated in a practical way what his rhetoric meant. He pushed unprecedented stimulus spending, a government-driven health care overhaul, further distortions in the U.S. financial sector, an expensive cap-and-trade system to restrict American energy, and more. His transformative proposals were based on a vision of a government-centered society that conflicts with the foundational principles of freedom and equality rooted in our Declaration of Independence. To support his expansive new vision of government without limits, the administration sent Congress four massive annual budgets that called for crushing levels of debt. The Democrat-controlled Senate, cognizant of the political peril of voting for such reckless spending, taxes, and new debt, gave up on budgeting altogether. The U.S. Senate unanimously rejected Obama's budgets, without passing any budget of its own for over three years.

The failed leadership and the dismal results from a president of such great promise have been disappointing. The moment of truth in front of us is of course not entirely his fault. Both political parties have failed the American people over the years, and both political parties have -- time and again -- prioritized political gain at the expense of principle. Thankfully, we have a historic opportunity in the year ahead to chart a new course, build a broad coalition for reforms that apply our timeless principles to today's most pressing challenges. It begins by reclaiming the core of what makes America exceptional: our commitment to freedom.

Economic freedom empowers entrepreneurs who have ideas and imagination, investors who take risks, and workers who hone their skills and offer their labor. Our exceptional country was built with the ingenuity, capital, and sweat contributed by individuals who risked it all to provide a brighter future for their families. America was founded on the shared belief that government's primary role is to safeguard our God-given freedoms, as individual initiative and a strong civil society are what make prosperity possible. America is exceptional for this very reason: No other country in the history of mankind was founded on such a powerful idea.

The president's policies have stifled this commitment to economic freedom, which has resulted in millions of Americans facing painful economic hardships. In the president's revealing rhetoric, we gain insight into why the economy remains so anemic and the future looks so bleak: Success is a function of government beneficence, not individual initiative.

His outlook not only makes for terrible economics, it also reveals moral confusion. The question that separates the prevailing sentiment in Washington from that of our Founders is a moral one: freedom and individual initiative, or big government alternatives?

President Obama's comments reflect an ideology that casts the private sector as an arena driven by greed and indifference to the well-being of others. In government-directed economies, the collective takes priority over the individual. The moral ideal is equal results.

Enforcing this contorted view of equality requires sharp class division -- the wealthy versus the middle class versus the poor. In this narrative, success is a zero-sum game. There is only so much wealth to go around, and one person's gain is another's loss.

The ideology of classes in historically inevitable conflict has never fit the reality of America. Our free and open economy works because the amount of wealth is not fixed. It grows with hard work, investment, and saving; all can prosper. Unlike in the European vision of big government, prosperity in America requires limits on the size and scope of the state, to ensure that no group faces government-imposed barriers to its opportunity to rise. America's Founders wrote our Constitution of self-government and limited powers to protect our natural rights and foster a level playing, so all could freely pursue their happiness.

Embracing the politics of class division, President Obama's principal solution to the nation's fiscal and economic problems is to raise the barriers to success with higher tax rates and greater centralized control over our economy. As a fiscal and an economic matter, the argument unravels as he remains unable to explain how the tax increases he's put forward can ever catch the spending increases ahead, and how such polices improve incentives for entrepreneurial investment and job development. Given such problematic realities, his appeal is more often moral in nature. Higher taxes are our patriotic duty. We're all in this together. Forcing the rich to pay their "fair share" is the right thing to do. Yet, on moral grounds, the president's argument cannot withstand scrutiny.

Every successful individual knows that his or her achievement requires a community of persons working together. We strengthen our bonds with each other as we offer our unique gifts to others. Customers reward the best and most efficient producers by buying their products and services. We work to advance the common good through our free association with each other, not because a coercive government directs our actions. Each human being has inherent dignity and unique gifts. Individuals thrive as they voluntarily share those gifts and talents with each other, in mutual assistance to meet their neighbors' needs. We could never do this if we were isolated individuals as caricatured in the president's distorted view of America's commitment to free enterprise.

Of course government has a critical role to play in establishing neutral rules that enable open competition, and in securing peace and order with courts, a standard currency, defense forces, first responders, teachers, infrastructure, and a safety net for the most vulnerable. Government can help create the space for innovation and prosperity, but government can not fill that space. Activist government overreach and ongoing economic stagnation have shown us why Washington should never try to displace what is best left to civil society.

There are pernicious side effects from Washington's ever-increasing intrusion into sectors of our economy and into aspects of our lives. Big-government economics breeds crony capitalism. It's corrupt, anything but neutral, and a barrier to broad participation in prosperity. Both political parties have been guilty of this trend. Most recently, Washington has pursued polices that pick winners and losers in specific sectors of our economy, and that favor well-connected corporations and union bosses with bureaucratic access, tax loopholes, and regulatory waivers. Think Solyndra, bankrupt after a $500 million taxpayer guarantee, and Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which continue to stifle the recovery while draining billions from the Treasury.

The moral case for individual initiative in a free economy holds that people have a God-given right to use their creativity to produce things that improve their lives. A free economy and strong communities honor the dignity of every person, reward effort with justice, promote upward mobility, and build solidarity among citizens. The president's vision of a collective, government-centered society -- reflected in his troubling rhetoric and failed policies -- divides class against class and belittles fair rewards for workers, entrepreneurs, and investors -- those who have built America into the greatest nation in the history of mankind.

We face a defining choice in November. For four more dreary years, President Obama will pursue his economically and morally bankrupt approach -- if we let him. Governor Romney, on the other hand, has embraced the vision of our exceptional nation, which Americans have always held, to guide our policies in the 21st century. He will follow a better path, consistent with the timeless truths of our nation's founding. A Romney administration would not put its faith in nameless government officials, but would trust persons and communities to determine what is in their best interests, and to make the right choices about the future.

We don't need to change the nature of America. We do not need to disparage our success, deny our exceptionalism, or transform America. We need to recommit to our founding principles and rebuild what has been broken. The comeback begins this November.

 

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About the Author

Rep. Paul Ryan, the Republican candidate for vice president, is a Congressman from Wisconsin and the chairman of the House of Representatives Budget Committee.