A new political science is needed for a world altogether new. But that is what we hardly dream of: placed in the middle of a rapid river, we obstinately fix our eyes on some debris that we still perceive on the bank, while the current takes us away and takes us backward toward the abyss.
—Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America
After the most serious financial crisis of our lifetime, after frantic bank bailouts and a massive government stimulus, after unprecedented deficits and extraordinary quantitative easing, we find ourselves in 2012 in a political-economic world altogether new. We need new policies to respond to our novel situation, policies reflecting fresh thinking based on firm principles. But this is precisely what our current presidential campaigns hardly dream of. And so, finding themselves in the middle of a rapid river, they obstinately fix their eyes on some debris they perceive on the bank, while the current takes all of us away and backward toward the abyss.
We expected no more from Barack Obama. We still hope for better from Mitt Romney. Perhaps Romney will start to take Matthew Continetti’s excellent advice in the editorial above, and decide to “talk straight to the American people about the manifold challenges facing the country and how he would fix them.” Perhaps he’ll address the worry “that the Republicans may not have changed after four years’ exile from the White House.” Or perhaps not. If not, we’ll just have to hope that candidate Romney knows what he’s doing in running a cautious and vague campaign; that he’ll win; and that President Romney, once elected, will adopt the bold remedies and imaginative policies the country needs.
Many presidents, after all, have done far more in office than would have been suggested by their campaigns. Franklin Roosevelt ran a reasonably conventional and cautious campaign in 1932. But as president, he transformed our fiscal, monetary, and regulatory policies, and altered fundamentally the size and scope of the federal government.
Could Romney turn out to be a modern-day FDR? Let’s hope so. This presidential campaign may not feature big-time ideas, but the next president had better be a big-time reformer. We have banks too big to fail and a welfare state too big to succeed. We have unsustainable public debt and unsustainable behavior by parts of the private sector. We have too much dependency on government and too much disparity in private wealth and power. We lack enforceable rules to constrain government spending and the government’s printing of money, and we have far too many regulations that limit freedom and hamper entrepreneurship in seemingly minor but cumulatively crippling ways. We have too much crony capitalism and too little democratic capitalism, too much legalism and too little rule of law.
And yet most of our politicians traffic in slogans rather than judgment, and many of our economic thinkers indulge in the conceit of economics as a pseudo-science rather than engaging in serious thought about political economy. Still, the wisdom of thinkers from Adam Smith to Joseph Schumpeter to Friedrich Hayek, and of statesmen from Alexander Hamilton to Ludwig Erhard to Jacques Rueff, remains available to us. And there are those who draw on those traditions and try to think anew (see, for instance, the articles by Irwin Stelzer and Lewis Lehrman in this issue). Indeed, look around conservative journals and you’ll find vigorous discussion of the political economy of democratic capitalism, spirited debate about how to foster economic opportunity and growth, and thoughtful consideration of the challenge of strengthening the institutions of a free society and a self-governing polity.
It’s true you won’t find much of that in the presidential campaign, so far. What you’ll find is one candidate asserting he’s betting on America, and the other assuring us he believes in America. That leaves it to the rest of us to think about how to improve and strengthen America.