Each time I watch a State of the Union address, I find myself wondering what America’s Founders would think of the endless glad-handing, the false camaraderie, the relentless smiling just in case you’re caught on camera, the counting of how many times and for how long the audiences stand during the president’s remarks, the . . . need I go on? Actually, I don’t think it’s very difficult at all to imagine how a George Washington, John Adams, John Witherspoon, or Charles Carroll would regard most of our political masters.
It’s also not hard to imagine what they would think of the degree of reality-denial in the 2013 State of the Union address. Judging from the president’s remarks, you’d never guess we just had a negative quarter of economic growth; or that the unemployment rate just ticked up again; or that millions of Americans have simply given up looking for work; or that Obamacare is (as predicted) already driving up the health-care costs that the president claimed are falling (just ask those businesses busy shifting thousands of employees into part-time positions in order to cap their exploding health-care costs); or that . . . again, I fear I am belaboring the point.
But there was also a rhetorical dimension to this State of the Union, and it reflects a pattern that goes all the way back to the president’s first inaugural address, in 2009. It involves making a few token references to free enterprise and rewarding individual initiative (to reassure us we’re still living in America instead of just another declining European social democracy), while simultaneously proposing more and more government programs that actually reflect a significant lack of faith in the workings of economic liberty.
Hence, we hear the president tell us, yet again, that we need to pump more money into universities and colleges. Never mind the higher-education bubble, which is going to implode sooner than most people think. We’re also told that we need to develop high-speed rail. One wonders if anyone has asked people in the People’s Republic of California how that’s working out. Then there is the apparently endless promise of green energy, which, despite the billions of taxpayer dollars poured into it, hasn’t actually created that many jobs at all. In addition to all this, we are now informed we must raise the minimum wage. Never mind all the evidence underscoring just how much damage minimum-wage laws do to the job prospects of the poor and many young people, not to mention newly arrived immigrants who just want a chance to start working.
Now I’m fully aware the president insisted that “it’s not a bigger government we need, but a smarter government that sets priorities and invests in broad-based growth.” But when one looks at what he proposed, it’s obvious that his wish-list does assume the growth of government (most notably the federal government) both in terms of raw numbers of employees but also, more importantly, in terms of its reach.
So when the president talks, for example, about his administration partnering with 20 particularly challenged communities, or of the Departments of Energy and Defense partnering with businesses to create manufacturing hubs, let’s be clear. Such programs don’t really mean “partnering.” They usually mean more central direction because we all know that Washington politicians and bureaucrats who don’t know very much at all about business (unless, of course, they once worked for one of those banks that got bailed out by the taxpayer in 2008) know better than the rest of us how to resolve local, state, and regional economic problems.
But I think the mindset of this administration was revealed in one particular line that, I must confess, almost escaped my attention. Quote: “I’m also issuing a new goal for America.”
The particular goal in question was to reduce energy-waste in homes and businesses. Think, however, about the quoted statement. Leaving aside the fact that it sounded like a decree issued from on high, the president’s words are emblematic of the top-down approach to the economy and society that’s characteristic of all instinctual dirigistes. In political terms, it also reflects a failure to grasp that America was never supposed to be about the government decreeing goals that we’re all obliged to get behind.
At a more elemental level, however, this was a speech remarkable for its lack of modesty about what governments can actually do with regard to promoting economic prosperity. Instead of growth-promoting certainties like reducing America’s absurdly high corporate tax rate or doing something to rein in the regulatory Frankenstein monster otherwise known as Dodd-Frank, we are effectively being promised more of the failed initiatives of the past four years.
For some people, however, rhetoric was always more important than reality.
— Samuel Gregg is research director at the Acton Institute and author of Becoming Europe: Economic Decline, Culture, and How America Can Avoid a European Future.