The Public Policy

Can Freedom Come Back?

The economic crisis may be temporary, but the resulting expansion of government could prove permanent.

By 4.13.09

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Our nation's leadership likes to compare recent economic declines to the Great Depression. So, just for kicks, here is another comparison.

Pundits and policymakers assure us that government will cede control back to the private sector once the crisis abates. Former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan in February said it "may be necessary to temporarily nationalize some banks in order to facilitate a swift and orderly restructuring." In March, Peter Beinart, a senior fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations, similarly predicted that the inevitable nationalization of Citigroup would be temporary.

"Over time, when we come out of this, the natural free market instincts of the American people, which are in now abeyance, will return," Beinart said.

We can hope so, but history is replete with examples to the contrary. In the 1930s, politicians planned to sunset unprecedented government expansions (parts of Social Security, for example) at a later date. The Depression ended, and government kept and even expanded its power. Look for the same to happen today.

It's easier to surrender freedoms in a panic, grow the size of government, and nationalize banks than to gain freedoms back, reduce the size of government, and privatize banks again. In few instances does government relinquish power back to the private sector. The current administration certainly has no plans along those lines.

That's why the temptation to curb freedom during economic turmoil must be resisted. Power-hungry politicians, both Republican and Democratic, eagerly offer solutions, which conveniently put the citizenry more and more under the thumb of Big Brother. Americans can't let fear or anger do their thinking for them.

Case in point: a bill sponsored by Democratic Congressman Alan Grayson of Florida that would create an Executive Compensation Commission to determine salary levels for corporate recipients of bailout funds. The bill, much maligned by conservatives, passed the House April Fools Day (a sweet irony) and is awaiting consideration in the Senate.

The measure is appealing in one way -- it punishes industries foolish enough to think the government handouts wouldn't have strings attached, and maybe sends a warning to other companies planning to go hat in hand to Uncle Sam.

More in line with the reason lawmakers filed the bill in the first place, however, is that it capitalizes on outrage over use of taxpayer funds to pay million-dollar bonuses to the CEOs of imploding companies. That visceral reaction, of course, ignores the real possibility the law would allow government to meddle with compensation levels for all employees, not just the top brass. Once government has salary-setting power, it's no easy task getting it back into the private sphere.

The economy is grabbing most of the headlines nowadays, but consider the many other ways the left seizes freedoms and doesn't give them back. Energy policy is a good example. The southeastern United States has been mired in a record-breaking drought for three years (and it's all because of global warming, don't you know). But plentiful rainfall this winter and spring has eased the dry spell. The AP reports that only about one-third of the South faces moderate or worse drought conditions.

Meanwhile, state and local governments last year passed drought management proposals that curbed private property rights. In North Carolina, lawmakers approved a bill that gives the governor broader authority to regulate local water sources. The new law allows local governments to lay water lines across private property without first obtaining a right-of-way. More than one supporter of the expanded powers claimed, essentially, that something had to be done or rain would never fall again

Well, it did, thanks to the providence of God, not government regulatory powers. But the freedoms taken last year aren't coming back, even though the impending catastrophe is not so catastrophic after all.

History might remember our current economic plight in a similar light. Extracting the federal government from banks would be like extracting a tooth with a butter knife -- probably impossible, definitely painful.

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About the Author
David N. Bass is a journalist who writes from the Old North State. Follow him on Twitter.