Alex Castellanos: President Barack Obama's faith in big government runs deep
He says administration doesn't appreciate the productive nature of private sector
Like sexual reproduction, growing economy is disorderly but creative process, he says
Castellanos: Government provides security but at a cost of sapping economic vitality
Our president is a wordsmith.
Syllables are notes on a scale for Barack Obama, played deliberately and elegantly. He hears music when he speaks and so do we. The notes he chooses are revealing. He seldom plays what he does not intend.
As his inaugural address floated down the National Mall from the steps of the U.S. Capitol, we heard this comforting refrain: “We have never … succumbed to the fiction that all society’s ills can be cured through government alone.”
The casual listener may have heard a call for balance and moderation, but the president’s composition was breathtakingly radical.
There is no situation, he informed us, in which government is not indispensably needed. Sometimes, it may require a little help: Society’s ills can’t “be cured through government alone.”
This president’s audacity is no longer hope: Obama is pursuing a spectacularly bold and activist, big-government agenda.
He opposes austerity only for Washington: His attempt to protect our bloated government from the “sequester” was ferocious. Obama’s apocalyptic warnings that the automatic budget cuts would “gut critical investments in … education and national security” could make a professional alarmist such as Al Gore jealous.
Obama confronted the sequester deadline like a surgeon who could not bring himself to wield his scalpel upon a member of his own family. He rejected the authority to target the spending cuts himself, though he had called the alternative “a meat cleaver approach.”
For Obama, taking personal responsibility for sparing one government program and not another was “Sophie’s Choice”: He loves them all equally and endlessly.
In this president’s world, our government should never shrink. His vision of social equality requires expanding social programs to bring the poor up and higher taxes to bring the rich down.
Our only choice, to deal with the world’s increasing complexity, is more political and artificial instruction from our antiquated, top-down public sector. This industrial age president tells us we have no alternative but government growth and the Washington do-gooding he terms “collective action.”
Obama sees a changing world. He would change America to match his vision of it. What he doesn’t see is the institution most in need of transformation: the government under his command.
Republican or Democrat, we would all like to see a new era of progress and prosperity for our country. We all hope this president will allow our economy to be as successful as his campaigns were.
To that end, perhaps we should explore if there is another, more modern way to deal with our evolving challenges and their accumulated complexity.
Years ago, in another essay, I offered the advice that follows to President Bill Clinton. Since Obama has dragged the Democratic Party back to the pre-Clinton, old Democrat “era of big government,” I offer it again, with only modest revision. Let’s discuss government in a way most of us can understand.
Let’s talk about sex.
Hell of a mess, isn’t it? Risky and inefficient. The eternal conflict between the sexes. The time wasted on courtship. So many failed relationships and so few successful ones. Why does Mother Nature spend such energy on the mating dance: The gravitational tug of brightly colored feathers or a sequined inaugural gown?
Half the genes here, half the genes there. The ungainly act required to mix those genes together. Is it all necessary?
Why are there two sexes? Wouldn’t it be more efficient if, like the amoeba, there were but one? Perhaps, inspired by his Affordable Care Act, this president could lead the country to a “single-payer” sexual system? Wouldn’t it spare us unnecessary expense and anxiety? Surely the architects of Obamacare could contrive a less troublesome method of reproduction, designing the thing from scratch.
Biologists have great jobs: They think about sex and explore such questions. Their answers, conveniently, boil down to this: Inefficiency and failure have advantages. For all its uncertainty, there are vast benefits in the tumultuous chaos of sex.
Through the rich differences between male and female, the reshuffling and recombining of genes, life finds its way forward. Male meets female, they shuffle the genetic cards and bang! Amphibians walk out of the water. Monkeys develop opposable thumbs. Man learns to walk upright. Shuffle the cards again and sex finds pathways around diseases and mutating viruses that would otherwise extinguish us. Another genetic shuffle and man learns to master the use of tools: a piece of flint, the spear, a Twitter app.
The chaotic jumble of sex is nature’s creative secret. It allows change, adaptability and advancement. The cost, however, is astounding. For every evolutionary change or mutation that succeeds, there are hundreds, perhaps millions of dead-end journeys. One eagle survives a thousand dodo birds.
The alternative to nature’s undisciplined creativity, however, is rigidity, paralysis and decline. Asexual reproduction is a short and stagnant avenue, an unimaginative path that leads no further than the amoeba.
It is a shame no one ever took Obama to a drive-in movie on a sultry, summer night to teach him this important lesson – and explain how it applies, not just to the birds and bees, but to society and economics, as well.
Nature advances through the wasteful confusion of sex. Economies advance through the noisy jumble of the free market. Science advances not just through reason, but in random leaps of inspiration. Some species and businesses and scientific experiments fail. Others march forward. Life advances not despite chaos, but because of it. There is no chance for success, it seems, where there is no risk of failure.
So it is with government. Every time it outlaws failure in exchange for security, a little bit of life is lost, and those who live, live less.
Big government is the enemy of change, the enemy of all growth but its own, the adversary of progress.
Government programs are poured cement: Once they flow into an economy and set, their man-made stone hardens forever. Americans have seen what welfare does to individual initiative, what the Internal Revenue Service has done to economic growth and innovation.
But government imposes a larger penalty, invisible and silent: It taxes our future. The dollar given is celebrated, the dollar taken goes unmourned. Like the farm boy who has never seen the ocean, we do not miss the businesses never started for lack of capital, the jobs never created because of government regulation, the family that could have made it with less economic pressure. Yet we are all poorer in their absence.
Big government taxes what we could be, much more than what we have.
A government that incentivizes progress, at its best, must largely leave its citizen-explorers alone on life’s perilous but promising journey, free to fail or succeed greatly.
Freedom, Mr. President, is as perilous and productive as sex.
Still, as our outdated industrial age government grows larger and drives us closer to bankruptcy, strangling economic growth, while failing to govern our schools, our health care, our retirement plans or our economy, Obama assures us that what we need is more commanding, anesthetizing big government.
And the safety and protection he promises are seductive. As we leave the old world of the factory for the new world of communications, a fledgling, techno-economy is reshaping the global economy through a violent and Darwinian process.
Jobs, businesses and entire industries that endured lifetimes now disappear in technological lightning strikes. If today’s workingman wanders down the wrong evolutionary path, making fire alarms instead of smoke detectors, he could end up next to the mimeograph machine in an economic graveyard.
With such economic anxiety, it is easier for politicians to feel our pain than our promise. They know they can raise our doubts faster than our confidence. Instead of inspiring us through great fear to greater accomplishments, they take a safer route. They comfort us as our president does: Obama reassures us with “The Plan.”
The plan promises security. A social safety net. A soft landing. It offers protection from a dangerous workplace, a dangerous economy, a dangerous environment. “Health Security for All Americans.” The plan comes in many shapes and sizes. Government will prescribe the exactly right route for us, our president tells us, and we lunge for that security as if a life raft.
Then we have no more worries than the amoeba. And we forget that Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t give an “I Have a Plan” speech.
Neither man’s greatest accomplishments nor nature’s elegant wonders could have evolved from a 2,000-page government plan.
Somewhere this night, far from Washington, as Obama’s second term blooms past infancy, two parents gather around a kitchen table. They are paying their bills. Looking at a report card. Mapping a line to the future for their children. And this night, though nothing in their world seems different, they know everything in their world has changed.
This night, as they tucked their 11-year-old into bed and wrapped him round with covers, they took his phone from his hands and put it by his bedside. He’d fallen asleep texting. And suddenly, through the eyes of another generation, they saw beyond the horizon to another time and place.
The child of today’s iPhone’s and apps will be a man of another era. Tonight, for the first time, they see it. A new economy, a new world, is building itself around them. They sense this is a time of great hope and opportunity for America, a moment of unparalleled promise and possibility. So they wonder, despite their optimism, why do they feel chained to the present, as if pulling an immense and unidentifiable weight?
Why aren’t they getting ahead?
They don’t know they spend more for government than for food, clothing and shelter combined – or they’d march from their grocery to the White House. They don’t know they will spend an average of 26,000 hours of their working lives laboring just to pay taxes – or they’d call it slavery. They don’t know government will take 3½ months of what they earn this year, as surely as if it had broken into their home and stripped them of their possessions.
But this they do know: They want to move ahead.
They don’t believe Washington can be their doctor, find them a job or lower their gas bill. They have lost faith in those old promises. Like most Americans facing the future, they are anxious and, at times, frightened. But others, no better than they, built the greatest nation on earth in the face of bigger obstacles.
And they are willing to stumble, pick themselves up and try again for something better, if their government will stop growing its economy at the expense of their economy. They don’t know why their leaders don’t believe in them, summon their courage and confidence, and call on them to do great things.
It is for those Americans that I hope Obama finds his way forward from our antiquated, factory-like public sector.
For somewhere beyond this difficult moment lies a wonderland. Somewhere around ordinary kitchen tables lie real miracles. And somewhere in a country uncertain of its future, but free to create it, lies a remarkable new era of progress, prosperity and real change.
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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Alex Castellanos.