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Optimistic or Pessimistic About America: Paul A. Rahe

The following is from our November issue. Forty-one symposium contributors were asked to respond to the question: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about America’s future?

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We live at the end of an era—at a time when the old order can no longer be sustained and a new set of arrangements has yet to emerge. It is a time fraught with discomfort, distress, and anxiety. Millions of Americans are looking for work; millions more have given up the search; and further millions are underemployed. All of them are having trouble making ends meet, and those fortunate enough to have steady work fear that a market collapse, rampant inflation, or a government desperate for revenues will deprive them of their savings.

This is also, however, a time of unparalleled opportunity. It helps that Americans are no longer in denial. They now know that there is no such thing as a free lunch, and that the entitlements regime begun under Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, vastly expanded under Lyndon Baines Johnson’s Great Society, and expanded again, at least in prospect, under Barack Obama’s New Foundation is unsustainable. It is now possible for a presidential candidate to describe Social Security as a gigantic Ponzi scheme without ruining his prospects, because everyone understands that the money in the so-called trust fund was spent by Congress long ago, and hardly anyone under 50 seriously expects to get Social Security upon retirement in his mid-60s. Everyone is aware, moreover, that Medicare is insolvent, that we cannot pay for Medicaid, and that the cost of health care is soaring; and most Americans recognize that Obama’s attempt to expand the sphere of public provision will, if not repealed, make matters considerably worse.

The presumptions that sustained the administrative state have also been exposed as lies. The experts on the President’s Council of Economic Advisors and those in charge at the Department of the Treasury and the Federal Reserve Board have repeatedly been proven wrong. When the president of the United States consulted his advisers and claimed in early September that his “jobs bill” would reduce unemployment and that it could easily be paid for, hardly anyone, even in his own party, believed a word. Distrust in the federal government is at an all-time high.

All of this is a blessing in disguise. As a people we were far worse off when we were prey to the illusion that we would be better off if we outsourced provision for our welfare to an administrative elite empowered to manage every detail of our lives. Our liberation from this illusion means that we can begin to dismantle the administrative entitlements regime; that we can return to the states and the localities the functions that are properly theirs; that we can refocus the federal government on the limited but vitally important tasks that the Constitution reserves for it; and that we can restore to individuals and families the obligations, responsibilities, and liberties that are properly theirs. The transition will be painful, but prosperity and low unemployment will return if we limit the burdens that public provision and administrative regulation place on private initiative and if we create a legal regime favorable to entrepreneurship—and morally, in taking responsibility for our own well-being and those of our families, we will be much better off.

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Paul A. Rahe is a professor of history at Hillsdale College and the author, most recently, of Soft Despotism, Democracy’s Drift (Yale).



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