Why the Stimulus Failed
History shows that government spending and social-engineering programs don’t spur growth.



In a nutshell, Cash for Clunkers and all the other social-engineering programs of the past few years won’t succeed as promised to assist economic recovery, because they cannot. And the tax increases at the center of Obamanomics will dig our hole even deeper. What would work to spur our country’s financial growth is more economic freedom — not more government spending.

Again, this is not political dogma, but empirical reality. A new study published in the International Review of Economics shows that there is a direct and clear link between economic freedom and prosperity. Studying economic-freedom measures ranging from tax rates to regulation to government spending, the study authors find that from 2004 to 2008, economically freer OECD countries consistently outperformed those that were less economically free.

Is the prescription for the next administration, then, no government spending, and a move toward a minimum-tax, super-capitalist state that will gut all public services? The administration would have Americans believe that is the philosophy of today’s Ryanista Republicans. As President Obama put it in his Osawatomie, Kan., speech last December, “Their philosophy is simple: We are better off when everybody is left to fend for themselves and play by their own rules.”

This is nonsense. Conservatives today understand the importance of a reliable safety net for the truly indigent and the necessity of dealing with certain market failures. Further, there is universal support on the political right for opportunity-equalizing government policies, such as publicly funded education (ideally, administered for the benefit of children as opposed to rent-seeking bureaucrats and teachers’ unions).

But conservatives also know that when it comes to economic progress, the best government philosophy is one that starts every day with the question, “What can we do today to get out of Americans’ way?” In other words, the president should not ask what new agency or program the government can create to stimulate, bail out, or redistribute from this group to that one. That will ultimately add to our problems, rob more from our children, and make it harder to create the jobs, opportunity, and growth our country needs. The president should instead ask these questions: What tax barrier to small business can we lower; what competition-killing regulation can we rescind; what unfair crony-tax loophole can we close?

These are not new insights. Thomas Jefferson summarized them best when he famously said:

A wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government.

Most Americans understand these truths, and the next administration must hew to them if it wants to succeed in breaking our government out of its cycle of incompetence, failure, and excuses. This is not political propaganda or an untested theory. It is practical reality based on economic truth.

— Arthur C. Brooks is president of the American Enterprise Institute and author of The Road to Freedom.


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