Monday, October 03, 2011

The Vision Thing

While Saint Paul continues to cling to the Quixotic dream of a Gingrich presidency and other conservatives call for the Christie cavalry to come riding to the rescue, the man whom I still forlornly long for to join the hunt is Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan. More evidence of why Ryan is just the man that America needs at the moment emerged in a book review that he penned in Saturday’s WSJ. It was a review of Jeffery Sachs’ book “The Price of Civilization” (sub req):

The freedom and independence of the American population can best be guaranteed by allowing the people to govern themselves through their elected representatives; by keeping limits on the size of government; and by encouraging each of us to take responsibility for our own well-being. We can best be aided by our families, communities, churches and local institutions—and by the government only as a last resort.

For, ultimately, Mr. Sachs's quarrel is with our founding principles of equality and liberty. Underlying the arguments in "The Price of Civilization" is a contention that the Constitution is too conducive to freedom, that it endorses an economic system too friendly to growth and the satisfaction of appetite, that it creates political institutions too inattentive to our national character.

In his first inaugural address, Thomas Jefferson defined "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." The contrast with Mr. Sachs's idea of "good government" could not be more stark.

The Founders thought of America as exceptional, but Mr. Sachs thinks that this claim is a myth and that the country's present greatness a historical aberration. Our decline is, thankfully, inevitable, he says: "America will not again dominate the world economy or geopolitics as it did in the immediate aftermath of World War II. That was a special historical moment; we can be glad that economic progress throughout the world is rapidly creating a more balanced global economy and society."

It is through this prism of decline that we may better understand Mr. Sachs's calls for an overbearing government to take more earnings from you and make more decisions for you, as well as his instructions for hard-working Americans to restrain their ambitions and accept their current place in life. He seeks nothing less than to replace the vision of the Founders—the ideals of individual liberty that have enabled America to achieve the unrivaled social, material and spiritual flourishing of the past two and a quarter centuries—with one that relies almost solely on the wisdom and beneficence of an intrusive, unlimited government.

The dialogue between capitalism and its critics is an old one, and it will continue. But as citizens of a self-governing nation, Americans must choose from time to time between alternative visions for our future. This book's budget proposals and economic policies are profoundly revealing. They lay bare the real agenda of those who wish us to abandon the American idea and consign our nation to the irrevocable path of decline. If only in that sense, "The Price of Civilization" is a useful contribution to the conversation we must have in order to make informed political choices in the years ahead.

No offense to any of his peers in the House, but how many other representatives could write a critique as insightful and elegant as Ryan does here? Ryan is right in that we have reached a crossroads where the country needs to decide which path forward it wants to take. And few can articulate the vision of American exceptionalism, limited government, and individual freedom better than Mr. Ryan can. It’s a shame that he won’t be the one carrying the banner of that vision forward in 2012.