Commentary: Our depleted national character

E. Thomas McClanahan is a columnist for the Kansas City Star.
E. Thomas McClanahan is a columnist for the Kansas City Star. MCT

Only on the surface is the November election about whether the Obama agenda should be halted and the Democratic majority in Congress fired. On a deeper level, the campaign is another chapter in the long struggle over the nation's direction.

Some 40 years ago, the United States stood virtually alone in its resistance to the broad global trend toward government centralization.

Many believed that given the Great Society and the establishment of huge programs like Medicare, the election of Jimmy Carter heralded a determined movement toward a European-style social welfare state.

What happened instead, as James C. Bennett explains in the current issue of National Review, was a great "U-turn." American voters recoiled from the diminished prospect of a Euro-future. Much of what President Carter tried to do was forestalled or thwarted.

He set up the departments of Energy and Education, and federal spending in those areas ballooned. But the left-wing dream of extensive energy rationing, federally dominated schools and pervasive government control over daily life was not to be.

Americans rebelled against strictures such as the 55 mph speed limit. Instead of more centralization, we opted for freer markets and more competition.

Even before Carter left office, the markets for air travel and freight transportation were deregulated. The massive conglomerates of the 1970s were gradually broken up. Later, the "natural monopoly" of the phone company was terminated as well. Competition flourished and prices fell.

As Michael Barone wrote in his political history, "Our Country," since the late 1960s, the primary sources of growth and vitality in the U.S. economy have been the "small units" rather than the "big units," an argument I've cited often in this column.

The world dominated by big business, big labor and big government has been largely supplanted by smaller, more nimble entities acting in decentralized fashion, sometimes with amazing effect. Once-small businesses pop on the scene, seemingly all of a sudden, and soon they're challenging huge concerns, as Google now presents a threat to key aspects of Microsoft's business.

Control of information has escaped the centralized mainframe computers and flowed into the hands of individuals. This shift is reflected in the political arena as well, in phenomena like the tea party — a powerful but decentralized movement reasserting the need for a U-turn away from rule by a suffocating Euro-state.

Obamacare is being rejected by voters because it attempts to "lower the cost curve" through the doomed-to-fail method of top-down rules and bureaucratized control, rather than by encouraging markets and greater consumer choice.

Obamacare is a retrograde centralized model, imposed on an electorate demanding that the government get with the trend in the larger economy and learn to operate in a more decentralized and efficient way.

It isn't clear yet how this can happen, but the debate on how to proceed is taking place almost exclusively on the right, among supposedly backward-looking conservatives. Meanwhile, the left clings to the relic of entitlement liberalism and its welter of programs breeding increasing reliance on government.

Our politics are poisoned in part because so many on the left are oblivious or hostile to the right’s concerns about growing government dependency. As Rep. Paul Ryan wrote in his "Roadmap for America's Future," the danger is that without reform, our national character will be "depleted" by a paternalistic government.

The "pledge" made public recently by House Republicans is keyed to the short-term, the political here and now, which is hardly surprising. Among other things, it would cancel unspent stimulus funds, repeal Obamacare, stop all tax increases, and roll discretionary non-defense spending back to 2008.

Fine. Accomplishing those goals would be significant, especially the repeal of Obamacare. But the larger struggle involves much higher stakes.

The challenge is how to reform a frayed entitlement system built atop the now-rickety foundation of 1950s birth rates. If the result of the Nov. 2 election is what the current polls suggest, then the voters are saying it's time to get serious about fixing this problem. Otherwise, it will bankrupt the country and destroy the national character.

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