Sunday, November 7, 2010

Perseverance and Principles

In an insightful Wall Street Journal article, Senator Jim DeMint welcomed Washington's newest conservatives. Senator DeMint warned them to change Washington, rather than letting Washington change them. He called for the new senators to be persevering and principled.

But perseverance and principles can be difficult to hold on to in office. Floridians know this, having been confused by Governor Charlie Crist, who campaigned hard in 2006 as a solid conservative. Chain-gang Charlie, even. In office, however, he blew where the political winds seemed to take him. Those winds filled his sails, taking him into the senate race and ultimately to his newfound independent status. Those winds dwindled, however, in recent months.

All over the country, voters were looking for strong leadership in these midterm elections. Even many Democrats were looking for mightier voices, as President Obama began to look weak. In Florida, the story was no different. Floridians have roundly rejected the current status quo in favor of a bold conservative approach. They did not elect an entire Cabinet of conservatives--rejecting moderate choices along the way--for more of the same. They did not preside over the coronation ceremony of tea party's crown prince as a senator in order to tone down partisanship. They did not elect Republicans as seven of eight new representatives to the U.S. House so that they could broker compromise.

Florida's new political leadership should heed Senator DeMint's advice and consider the reasons they were elected. They must understand the need for perseverance and principles while in office. There won't be a second chance.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Why Free Enterprise Needs a Story

Last month, Arthur C. Brooks wrote an insightful article on the new culture war. Brooks believes the new culture war in America is not about the social struggles of the last two decades--"guns, gays or abortion." The new culture war is about competing visions for America's future. Will the country return to its free enterprise, capitalist roots? Or will it continue the drift to social democracy, to statism? This question should concern every American, not just those of us who are economy-first voters. The answer will touch every aspect of our lives. Consider that, in recent years, the pace of change has quickened, with quasi-nationalized health care, financial bailouts, and government-owned car manufacturers.

Despite these changes, Americans still overwhelming support free enterprise. Brooks points to a Gallup poll describing how Americans feel about various terms describing the political economy. 86% of those polled felt positively about "free enterprise," and 61% felt positively about "capitalism." He also points to a Pew Research Study reporting that 70% of Americans believe that, generally, people are better off in a free-market economy.

Yet, if these studies are accurate, why have even liberals been wondering if we are drifting towards social democracy? To me, the problem is clear: free enterprise needs a story.

Marxists, communists, and socialists have the clear advantage here, as they can easily blend elements of ideology, mythology, and even spirituality. We've all heard the ridiculous stories about Kim Jong Il. More seriously, much scholarship has discussed the Soviet mythologies, and the Chinese are still taught glorified stories of the communist party's early days.

A principled, perhaps even moral, approach is the first step, as Brooks suggests: supporters of free enterprise "must come together around core principles: that the purpose of free enterprise is human flourishing, not materialism; that we stand for equality of opportunity, not equality of income; that we seek to stimulate true prosperity rather than simply treat poverty; and that we believe in principle over power."

But the problem has never been that free enterprise and capitalism lacked proponents with a principled personal philosophy. People need stories and myth precisely because they illustrate those principles. President Obama is a master of illustrating his personal philosophy with semi-mythical American characters. Those of us who believe in free enterprise need to begin doing the same. At the very least, we need to make our beliefs more accessible because many Americans are economically illiterate.

Russ Roberts pushes in the right direction in today's Wall Street Journal, "[Friedrich] Hayek understood that the opposite of top-down collectivism was not selfishness and egotism. A free modern society is all about cooperation. We join with others to produce the goods and services we enjoy, all without top-down direction. The same is true in every sphere of activity that makes life meaningful--when we sang and when we dance, when we play and when we pray. Leaving us free to join with others as we see fit--in our work and in our play-is the road to true and lasting prosperity."

That's at least a start.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Celebrating Economic Progress on Earth Day

Earth Day presents a good opportunity to launch this blog. I'm a conservationist, but I doubt that most greens would invite me to their supper clubs. My family cuts timber for a living, and after law school, I plan to work to protect property rights. In fact, I decided to become a lawyer when my hometown government tried to do away with property rights on my family's land.

Rather, Earth Day hints at what is to become a theme of this blog. It provides a convenient vehicle to highlight the contrast between what Bastiat called the seen and the unseen. Pollution is easy to see, as are factories and Congressional posturing about the environment. What of the unseen? Environmental progress follows economic progress. In reality, economic progress is the key to environmental stewardship.

On this Earth Day, news editorials are commenting on the unfortunate timing of an oil rig explosion. Yet that's no reason to celebrate Earth Day by turning off our lights. That's not progress. Neither is it a reason to reduce our consumption of oil. During the industrial revolution, we were much less productive, and polluted much more. Now, there is evidence that increased incomes and free markets yield better environmental outcomes.

Even our president misunderstands this crucial point. President Obama, in his Earth Day speech, said "But just as we've led the global economy in developing new sources of energy, we've also led in consuming energy. While we make up less than 5 percent of the world's population, we produce roughly a quarter of the world's demand for oil." He neglected to mention, however, that in 2009, according to the International Monetary Fund the United States also produced roughly a quarter of the world's economic output.

The demand for fuel is not the enemy. Rising economic fortunes are not the enemy. Increasing economic output is the key to saving the planet. Good economic policy does not hinder the goals of the environmentalist or the conservationist. In fact, it is the only effective tool they have at their disposal.

As we will see, that will be an important theme of this blog.