Here’s where the presidential debate stands. Mitt Romney seems comfortable arguing for a Bain Capital-style turnaround of the economy, and the many opponents of the stimulus, Obamacare, and Dodd-Frank are happy to help him. They have a strong case: The nation would benefit from less federal intervention and welfare and more private initiative and risk-taking. Romney and his supporters have become advocates for efficiency of production, which they contrast with the equality of condition that is the goal of President Obama and other liberals.
But there is a danger in ceding the ground of equality to the president. This deprives Republicans and conservatives of a powerful chord in the American political vocabulary.
In many ways, champions of markets are champions of failure. Firms regularly go bust and disappear in a well-functioning and productive economy. They’ve failed to provide goods and services that the market desires, and so they are beaten by more productive enterprises. (Indeed, one could say that America continues to have far too many institutions on government-sustained life support, from AIG to GM to Ally Financial.)
When you are free to choose, you are also free to lose. The entrepreneur is going to flop just as much as he succeeds, if not more. The laborer in a market system is going to switch jobs often. He will be part of the great “job churn” by which outmoded positions are destroyed and replaced by new ones. There will be times when he may feel anxious about the future. He may look to statesmen for words of reassurance.
If those statesmen respond by saying, “Well, bub, that’s just part of the great process of creative destruction,” our laborer may turn to demagogues and flatterers who promise stability and a helping hand in exchange for greater control over the economy and society.
And if those statesmen respond by saying, “We want to help the job creators, not the tax-dollar takers,” he may listen instead to President Obama, who said recently that his job is not to maximize profits (no danger of that happening), but to “set up an equitable tax system so that everybody is paying their fair share.” Egalitarianism will trump efficiency if the public sees the market and its supporters as heartless and unjust.
That is why it may not be the wisest idea to say that the 2012 election is a referendum on “capitalism.” “Creative destruction” is an uncertain flag to rally behind. One might discover that a majority of the people are willing to trade liberty for security—especially if the argument for a free economy is based solely on econometric studies and actuarial projections.
A better option: Cast the graphs aside, and reject the distinction between efficiency and equality. To support markets is not to reject fairness but to embrace it. One supports free enterprise not only because it improves the bottom line, but also because it is the only economic arrangement compatible with the equal rights of citizens. A government that tries to correct inequalities of result inevitably will interfere with our rights to life, liberty, and property. It will, for instance, unfairly favor some businesses over others—usually the powerful and politically well-connected.
Consider the laborer. He is endowed with the natural rights to use his skills as he likes and to dispose of his earnings as he sees fit. The duty of government is to protect his rights of safety and conscience and the property he creates through his labor. By exercising these rights, he improves his condition. Or as Lincoln put it in his 1859 speech to the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society, “The prudent, penniless beginner in the world labors for wages awhile, saves a surplus with which to buy tools or land for himself, then labors on his own account another while, and at length hires another new beginner to help him.”
Why not frame the Republican agenda in Lincoln’s rhetoric of natural equal rights? Such an approach seems entirely compatible with Romney’s policies. A Romney administration would lower the cost of labor through repealing Obamacare and other onerous regulations. It would shrink the tax wedge that increases costs and reduces individual earnings by cutting payroll and income and corporate taxes. It would promote mobility through right to work and education initiatives. It would end favoritism and cronyism in energy policy. It would treat all Americans equally by winding down race-based affirmative action. It would lessen workingmen’s future tax burden—and the tax burden of their children and grandchildren—by signing into law the Ryan plan to bring discretionary spending into balance and restructure Medicare and Medicaid to save them for the long term.
Not only will the economy become more efficient, the equal rights of every American will be secured. Romney would be speaking in the language of the American Founders, of Abraham Lincoln, of Ronald Reagan. Both the economy and civil society would be renewed. And the great American turnaround would begin.