Renewing the American Idea

Paul Ryan
U.S. House of Representatives

Paul RyanPaul Ryan is the United States Representative for Wisconsin’s First Congressional District, where he was first elected in 1998. He is the chairman of the House Budget Committee and a senior member of the House Ways and Means Committee. A lifelong resident of Wisconsin, Ryan holds a degree in economics and political science from Miami University in Ohio.

Now, the Progressives were right about something: The country was crying out for a national safety net, especially following the Great Depression. Americans agreed that we should pool our resources to protect hardworking families. And yes, they wanted smart, talented people to run the federal government. But they didn’t want those smart, talented people to run their lives. They wanted to enlist the federal government in the service of self-government. They didn’t want to turn over the keys.

Progressives didn’t respect this distinction. Once they got their foot in the door, they kept pushing. First there was the New Deal, then the Fair Deal, then the Great Society. In 2008, they saw another opening. This was their chance to cement the Progressive philosophy into place. They characterized what they were doing as a logical extension of the safety net. If you liked Medicare, they said, you’ll love Obamacare. But it hasn’t worked out that way. Instead, the people resisted. And the Left is baffled.

Here’s the difference: Everybody understands the safety net, and everybody benefits from it. Take Social Security. We all know how it works—or at least how it’s supposed to work. When you’re working, you pay in. And when you’re retired, it pays out. It’s the same thing with Medicare—simple, straightforward. Everybody gets old. Everybody gets sick. And so everybody contributes in exchange for a secure retirement. Most people think that’s a fair trade. And I agree.

The Affordable Care Act is a completely different kind of program. Nobody understands it, and it makes everyone anxious. If you listened to the sales pitch, it seemed simple enough: Every business with over 50 full-time employees must offer health insurance—period. Or, as it turned out, maybe not—maybe you can get a delay . . . or a waiver . . . or an exemption. How do you get these things? Nobody knows. The administration makes decisions on the fly, so the law changes every day. Under Obamacare, an autonomous board called IPAB decides what kind of care those on Medicare will receive in the future. Bureaucrats are calling the shots and running the show.

Or take Dodd-Frank. Some say it’s like deposit insurance. But deposit insurance protects the little guy. Dodd–Frank protects the big guys—the biggest, most powerful financial institutions in the country. The result is predictable: Big banks get bigger and small banks get fewer. More insidious is that this law vastly expands the power of bureaucrats to take over the daily operations of any large financial institution they deem to be in trouble. Thus the skepticism.

In short, the difference between the safety net and the Progressive bureaucracy is the difference between fair play and playing favorites.

The safety net jibes with self-government; the Progressive agenda does not. The safety net gives people more control over their lives, while the Progressive agenda takes that control away. And there’s a key underlying principle: The reason you have more control with the safety net is that you earned it. You paid in. You made the difference. That’s the very heart of self-government: We the people are the masters of our fate. We can improve our lot by dint of our own efforts—by working together of our own free will. Nobody has to force us or oversee us. Earned success and earned security go hand in hand.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Everything wasn’t hunky-dory until this president came to town. Social Security and Medicare have been going broke for years. Politicians have made promises they couldn’t keep, and the bill is about to come due. We conservatives must be committed to strengthening these programs—because that’s what hardworking taxpayers have expressed a desire for in election after election, and it is what they deserve. Limited government with popular consent is the principle we’re trying to uphold.

Every idea I’ve proposed would give people more control over their future. They paid in all these years so they would have health insurance. Why not let them choose their health insurance? More choice means more freedom. The conservative argument isn’t just that reducing bureaucracy is more efficient—it’s that it increases self-government. And the argument against the Progressive agenda isn’t just that it’s more expensive—it’s that it undermines self-government.

This is a key distinction—one we need to keep in mind—because there’s another fallacy popular among conservative ranks. Just as some think that anything government does is wrong, others seem to think that anything business does is right. But in fact, they’re two sides of the same coin. Both big government and big business like to stack the deck in their favor. And though they are sometimes adversaries, they are far too often allies.

Bureaucrats favor big business over the upstarts. Large companies are more predictable—and easier to control. So government tips the scales in their favor, instead of letting competition sort things out. And big business is a willing accomplice—because regulation keeps the competition out. Many times, large corporations don’t oppose new regulations; indeed, they help write them. The point is, crony capitalism isn’t a side effect—it’s a direct result of big government.

We can see the consequences throughout our economy. It used to be that only the success stories were household names. Now the failures are: Solyndra, Fisker, Tesla. Big businessmen spend less and less time hustling in the marketplace, and more and more time lining the halls of government. And of course bureaucrats as well as businessmen take part in this culture of double standards. Consider the IRS. It requires every family to keep seven years’ worth of tax records, but it can’t keep six months’ worth of emails. It’s a disgrace.

The American Founders would not recognize in this stratified system a truly open market of commerce. It isn’t open. It isn’t equal in opportunity. It isn’t producing equitable profit growth or hope for those at the bottom of the ladder. It isn’t driven by markets seeking to satisfy people’s needs—it is driven by experts, calculus, wealth, and preference.

Congressman Jeb Hensarling has recently launched a great challenge against the crony capitalist economy, and in particular against the Export-Import Bank. This bank is just one example of how bureaucratic government is corrupting free enterprise. Conservatives must stop defending it. Cronyism is the Progressives’ tool for economic control. Let them defend it.

Finally, there is a temptation among conservatives to ask courts to intervene and solve our problems for us. Some of us think of judges the way Progressives think of bureaucrats: technical experts with the solutions to constitutional conflicts. But we can’t rely on the courts alone to defend our rights. Judges, like bureaucrats, are often the problem. It is true the Supreme Court can be an ally in conflicts involving the Constitution; but it can also be an adversary. So let’s remember that under our Constitution of self-government, the court that really counts is the court of public opinion, where the American people hand down their verdict each election day.

To bring the argument full circle, let us never forget that a people who claim the right of self-government are always on trial. Out of our first trial, during the Revolutionary era, we adopted the greatest and longest surviving Constitution ever written. We were tried in a great Civil War, in two World Wars, during depressions and inflations, and we survived and prospered. Every effort to stamp out American self-government has been defeated . . . so far. Will we now prevail again?

Nothing in history is inevitable. If we are to get through our current trial, as we have done in the past, it will be by the use of our wits and through tremendous effort. In this sense, the Constitution isn’t a living document so much as a life-giving document. It gives purpose and direction to our way of life as a free people. Let us remain committed to the American Idea. With the inherent good sense of the American people, we can, we must—and I believe we will—get through this great trial together, freer and stronger than ever before.