‘America is more than just a place,” Paul Ryan told the Norfolk, Virginia, crowd during his first speech as Mitt Romney’s running mate. “It’s an idea. It’s the only country founded on an idea. Our rights come from nature and God, not government.” The audience roared at this mention of natural rights. Ryan uses similar language in almost every stump speech. He wins applause every time.
Mitt Romney’s selection of Ryan was significant for many reasons, but here is one that hasn’t been much commented on: It gives the Republican ticket a newfound and solid grounding in the language of the Declaration of Independence. When Ryan makes the Republican case, he does not limit his argument to economic efficiency, enhanced productivity, cost cutting, or laissez-faire. He has expanded the scope of debate to include foundational principles of government.
Is the federal government supposed to cater to our every need or desire, or did the Founders have another purpose in mind? Does government grant us social and economic rights in an ever-evolving process, or do we derive those rights from an unchanging human nature that precedes the institution of government? Does government have the responsibility to redistribute property in accordance with theoretical and arbitrary ideas of fairness, or should it rather concentrate on ensuring that property is earned fairly and in accordance with the rule of law?
These are the questions Ryan asks, and they cannot be dismissed. A recurrence to first principles connects Romney and Ryan to the Tea Party movement. It connects them to Ronald Reagan, who spoke often of “our natural, unalienable rights.” It connects them to Calvin Coolidge, who declared that July 4, 1776, “has come to be regarded as one of the greatest days in history” not because the Declaration was “proposed to establish a new nation, but because it was proposed to establish a nation on new principles.”
And a recurrence to those principles connects Romney and Ryan to the first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, who said the Founders “meant to set up a standard maxim for free society which should be familiar to all: constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people, of all colors, everywhere.”
The task that faces the Republican party as it gathers in Tampa this week is to translate the principles of the Founding Fathers, Lincoln, Coolidge, Reagan, and the Tea Party into public policies equal to America’s economic and fiscal crisis. How? One approach would be to frame our current challenges in terms our forefathers would have understood: independence and union.
The American Revolution was fought not only to achieve independence from the British Empire, but also to realize independence for self-governing citizens. But America and Americans have become increasingly dependent in recent years. We are dependent on the government for jobs, for benefits, for pensions, and for health care. We are dependent on overseas energy and on cheap goods from China. We are dependent on consumer debt issued by a consolidated financial system in which the largest, Too Big to Fail institutions and their agents rig the game in their favor (see Rubin, Robert). Our economy seems dependent on an erratic and unaccountable Federal Reserve.
Such dependencies threaten to spiral out of control. Budget deficits and public debt are financed by overseas powers whose interests are not our own. Health expenditures in particular threaten to crowd out other parts of the budget, such as the core government function of national defense, as well as the education, transportation, and research dollars the incumbent talks so much about. Increasing reliance on means-tested government transfers enervates the character of the people and hampers economic growth. Trade deficits send money to potential adversaries, who return the money in the form of asset bubbles. The dangers of big banks are obvious: Excessive leverage and madcap derivative trading not only increase systemic risk, but the political pull of mega-firms also promotes cronyism and inside dealing. As for the Fed, markets lurch back and forth as investors try desperately to decipher what Chairman Ben Bernanke will do next.
Here is what independence might look like: A responsible budget would tame the debt by addressing the unfunded liabilities in Social Security and Medicare through a combination of increasing the retirement age, tying benefits to longevity and inflation, and introducing premium support. Medicaid would be block-granted. Its maintenance-of-effort regulations would be liberalized. The health care system would be improved and costs lowered through competition, the freedom to purchase insurance across state lines, a tough approach to malpractice litigation, and an end to the tax penalty for individuals who do not obtain insurance through their employer. The emphasis of social policy would be on getting families off government assistance, not ensnaring more of them in a safety net that raises effective marginal tax rates.
Full exploitation of America’s domestic carbon energy resources—oil, coal, and natural gas—would lessen our dependence on foreign oil and reduce the trade deficit. The sort of retaliatory tariffs against unfair Chinese trade practices and currency manipulation for which Irwin M. Stelzer has argued in these pages would have a similar effect. A center-right consensus has emerged to deal with Wall Street: Link bank size to increased capital requirements so that financial institutions cannot grow fat on leveraged dollars. Go ahead and audit the Fed, but also increase the pressure on it to commit to a rules-based monetary policy rather than the sort of haphazard discretionary approach it has adopted since the financial crisis began.
So one Republican theme, and goal, could be independence for self-governing citizens. Another could be union.
The idea of union, the concept embodied in our unofficial national motto, “Out of many, one,” can inform public policy. The current administration has damaged the ideal of union by slicing and dicing the American electorate into groups—minorities, the young, women, the One Percent and the Ninety-Nine Percent—and pitting each against the other. The appropriate response is to treat Americans not as members of a race or group or class, but as sovereign individuals possessing equal natural rights.
Prosperity and freedom do not benefit one group over another. They benefit us all. So a strong union would have a strong economy. It would also try to tax its citizens equally, which implies a simple and broad-based tax code in which the income derived from investments and the income derived from labor would be taxed at equal rates. Special-interest loopholes, especially those that benefit the wealthy, would be closed in order to lower tax rates for everyone. This was the goal of the 1986 Reagan tax reform, and should be the goal of any tax reform in a Romney-Ryan administration.
Viewing government through the prism of natural rights clarifies priorities. A strong union would promote color-blindness and equality under the law. A Romney-Ryan administration would affirm the right to life, and would eliminate the threats to religious liberty and conscience contained in Obamacare and in other progressive innovations. Assaults on personal property rights, whether they come from the environmental lobby or from the federal government, would be curtailed. The right to free labor—to work where one pleases, for what one pleases, and with or without joining a union—would be expanded at every opportunity. The goal of economic policy would be, as Romney has put it, more jobs for more take-home pay: increasing the worker’s return on labor by maximizing demand for workers, by lowering their cost of living, and by protecting them from unfair wage competition.
It’s a tall order. The election is close. Cynicism and pessimism and declinism are everywhere in the land. But surely the American people will rally to a Romney-Ryan ticket—and will support a Romney-Ryan administration—if it follows a path laid out by the greatest guides of all: Abraham Lincoln, and the American Founders, and the spirit of 1776.