Politics & Policy

American Rights, American Responsibilities

Big government invites corruption and imperils the generosity of the American spirit.

In America today, we need to trust ourselves not look to others to take care of us. As a society, we bloom when we allow individuals to work hard and enjoy what they can achieve. Economist and Nobel laureate F. A. Hayek rightly credited the “unchaining of individual energies” with creating and sustaining the West’s freedom and prosperity. Only individuals create and dream, something Americans have recognized since the nation’s founding. That is why we Americans reject collectivism. We do not believe that, in the words of one turn-of-the-century German thinker, “The individual is nothing in relation to the course [of time], the species is everything.”

However, we cannot ever allow our society to drift to the opposite extreme, at which the individual is everything, and the group is nothing. As Americans, we are bound together by a common outlook and heritage. We have freedom, but we also have responsibilities, both to ourselves and to those around us. That is what makes us great.

In my family, our need to care for others — not just our family but strangers, too — springs from our Christian beliefs. The greatest commandment, which envelops so many others, is the voluntary obligation to love your neighbor as yourself. Government coercion is a poor and dangerous substitute for that appeal to our better angels. As Winston Churchill said just over 100 years ago, the good Lord taught us to believe “all mine is yours,” not “all yours is mine.” Christian charity is about giving, not taking.

Here in Louisiana, when the storms have come, we have seen the incomparable generosity of the American spirit. I’ll never forget what I saw: people standing on rooftops begging to be rescued. Hospitals meant to save lives, suddenly helpless to preserve them. Families torn apart for all time by the relentless force of the rising waters.

A monumental failure of government contributed mightily to what we saw during those grim days in 2005.We will see other storms come to our state but, as governor, I’ve worked to make sure those tragic events never visit Louisiana again. I’ve also put everyone in the state on notice that all of us, as individuals, must take greater responsibility for preparing for the storms life brings us. All of us must be responsible for meeting the needs of the truly disadvantaged, people with physical or mental limitations. People who can take responsibility for themselves should not expect someone else do so. We will help you when catastrophe comes, but you’d better not sit there and just wait for someone to pull you out when you could climb out, or pick you up when you could stand on your own two feet.

Today, we have taxpayer dollars going to banks, investment houses, and automakers, and financial firms that are judged “too big to fail.” Our government is supposed to be a “partner” with these businesses. As one businessman told me, that’s like an alligator having a chicken as a partner for dinner. I believe big government should not be picking and choosing which companies we will bail out or rescue. That political competition lets the best lobbyists determine the winner.

Government’s role is to serve as an objective referee and make sure companies abide by the rules, compete fairly, and obey the law. We don’t want the referee tilting the football game. But when the federal government starts bailing out individual businesses, that’s exactly what it does. Of course, if you think there isn’t enough backroom dealing and corruption in Washington now, then let’s give big-government officials the chance to pass out more cash, loans, and contracts.

When you give Washington not hundreds of billions but trillions of dollars to hand out, you create corruption on steroids. Some will use their power and privilege to enrich themselves. Others will enrich their political allies. Either way, with new trillion-dollar pots of gold to lust after, I’m sure corruption is growing, even now, in Washington.

Consider the words of Harry Hopkins, who oversaw both the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the distribution of funds from the Federal Emergency Relief Act (FERA) under FDR during the Great Depression. “I thought at first I could be completely non-political,” Hopkins said (as quoted by Robert E. Sherwood in the definitive Roosevelt and Hopkins: An Intimate History). “Then they told me I had to be part non-political and part political. I found out that was impossible, at least for me. I finally realized that there was nothing for it but to be all-political.” When trillions of dollars are sloshing around the Treasury, awaiting direction from the privileged few, we know what will happen: People who walk into public service with nothing will walk out with the taxpayers’ gold in their pockets. And businessmen who walked in with empty pockets will walk out millionaires because of whom they knew, not whom they served. Look at the list of the most corrupt countries in the world today, and you will see that centralized economies are at the top of the list.

In his 1958 book The Affluent Society, John Kenneth Galbraith said that with a home, a car, a television set, and a family member in college, the American family had reached its economic pinnacle. Then, in the 1970s, Stanford University professor Paul Ehrlich warned us that the immediate future would bring widespread famine, shortages, and despair. He wrote in his book The Population Bomb (1968): “By 1985 enough millions will have died to reduce the earth’s population to some acceptable level, like 1.5 billion.” In his book The End of Affluence (1975), Ehrlich said Congress would be dissolved “during the food riots of the 1980s.” In 1977, Jimmy Carter warned, “We could use up all of the proven reserves of oil in the entire world by the end of the next decade.”

Of course, there were no food riots in America in the 1980s. Our oil reserves expanded; they did not evaporate, despite our still-growing dependence. And, at last count, there were approximately 6 billion people on earth, including, surprisingly, Paul Ehrlich.

Yet today there are still some people who want to harp on America’s limits. They still say that our best days are behind us. These big-government advocates tell us their failures are the best Americans can do. Forget cooking up anything new — let’s just divide the old American pie into smaller, equally unsatisfying pieces.

That is all bunk. It’s not a sunset but a sunrise that still starts America’s day.

Bobby Jindal is governor of Louisiana and author of Leadership and Crisis (Regnery, 2010), from which this article is adapted.


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