Mises Daily Articles
Challenge to America: A Current Assessment of Our Republic
Congressional Record — US House of Representatives February 7, 2001
The beginning of the 21st century lends itself to a reassessment of our history and gives us an opportunity to redirect our country's future course if deemed prudent.
The main question before the new Congress and the administration is: Are we to have gridlock or cooperation? Today we refer to cooperation as bipartisanship. Some argue that bipartisanship is absolutely necessary for the American democracy to survive. The media never mention a concern for the survival of the Republic. But there are those who argue that left-wing interventionism should give no ground to right-wing interventionism — that too much is at stake.
The media are demanding the Bush administration and the Republican Congress immediately yield to those insisting on higher taxes and more federal government intervention for the sake of national unity, because our government is neatly split between two concise philosophic views. But if one looks closely, one is more likely to find only a variation of a single system of authoritarianism, in contrast to the rarely mentioned constitutional, nonauthoritarian approach to government.
The big debate between the two factions in Washington boils down to nothing more than a contest over power and political cronyism, rather than any deep philosophic differences.
The feared gridlock anticipated for the 107th Congress will differ little from the other legislative battles in recent previous Congresses. Yes, there will be heated arguments regarding the size of budgets, local vs. federal control, and private vs. government solutions. But a serious debate over the precise role for government is unlikely to occur. I do not expect any serious challenge to the 20th-century consensus of both major parties — that the federal government has a significant responsibility to deal with education, health care, retirement programs, or managing the distribution of the welfare state benefits. Both parties are in general agreement on monetary management, environmental protection, safety, and risks both natural and man-made. Both participate in telling others around the world how they must adopt a democratic process similar to ours, as we police our worldwide financial interests.
We can expect most of the media-directed propaganda to be designed to speed up and broaden the role of the federal government in our lives and the economy. Unfortunately, the token opposition will not present a principled challenge to big government, only an argument that we must move more slowly and make an effort to allow greater local decision-making. Without presenting a specific philosophic alternative to authoritarian intervention from the Left, the opposition concedes that the principle of government involvement per se is proper, practical, and constitutional.
The cliché "Third Way" has been used to define the so-called compromise between the conventional wisdom of the conservative and liberal firebrands. This nice-sounding compromise refers to the noisy rhetoric we hear not only in the US Congress but also in Britain, Germany, and other nations as well. The question, though, remains: Is there really anything new being offered? The demand for bipartisanship is nothing more than a continuation of the Third Way movement of the last several decades.
The effort always is to soften the image of the authoritarians who see a need to run the economy and regulate people's lives, while pretending not to give up any of the advantages of the free market or the supposed benefits that come from a compassionate-welfare or socialist government. It's nothing more than political have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too deception. Many insecure and wanting citizens cling to the notion that they can be taken care of through government benevolence without sacrificing the free market and personal liberty. Those who anxiously await next month's government check prefer not to deal with the question of how goods and services are produced and under what political circumstances they are most efficiently provided. Sadly, whether personal freedom is sacrificed in the process is a serious concern for only a small number of Americans.
The Third Way, a bipartisan compromise that sounds less confrontational and circumvents the issue of individual liberty, free markets, and production is an alluring, but dangerous, alternative. The harsh reality is that it is difficult to sell the principles of liberty to those who are dependent on government programs. And this includes both the poor beneficiaries as well as the self-serving wealthy elites who know how to benefit from government policies. The authoritarian demagogues are always anxious to play on the needs of people made dependent by a defective political system of government intervention while perpetuating their own power. Anything that can help the people to avoid facing the reality of the shortcomings of the welfare/warfare state is welcomed. Thus our system is destined to perpetuate itself until the immutable laws of economics bring it to a halt at the expense of liberty and prosperity.
Third Way compromise, or bipartisan cooperation, can never reconcile the differences between those who produce and those who live off others. It will only make it worse. Theft is theft, and forced redistribution of wealth is just that. The Third Way, though, can deceive and perpetuate an unworkable system when both major factions endorse the principle.
In the last session of the Congress, the majority party, with bipartisan agreement, increased the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education appropriations by 26 percent over the previous year, nine times the rate of inflation. The Education Department alone received $44 billion, nearly double Clinton's first educational budget of 1993. The Labor, HHS, and Education appropriation was $34 billion more than the Republican budget had authorized.
Already the spirit of bipartisanship has prompted the new president to request another $10 billion, along with many more mandates on public schools. This is a far cry from the clear constitutional mandate that neither the Congress nor the federal courts have any authority to be involved in public education.
The argument that this bipartisan approach is a reasonable compromise between the total free-market or local-government approach and that of a huge activist centralized-government approach may appeal to some, but it is fraught with great danger. Big government clearly wins; limited government and the free market lose. Any talk of a Third Way is nothing more than propaganda for big government. It's no compromise at all. The principle of federal government control is fully endorsed by both sides, and the argument that the Third Way might slow the growth of big government falls flat. Actually, with bipartisan cooperation, government growth may well accelerate.
How true bipartisanship works in Washington is best illustrated by the way a number of former members of Congress make a living after leaving office. They find it quite convenient to associate with other former members of the opposing party and start a lobbying firm. What might have appeared to be contentious differences when in office are easily put aside to lobby their respected party members. Essentially no philosophic difference of importance exists — it's only a matter of degree and favors sought, since both parties must be won over. The differences they might have had while they were voting members of Congress existed only for the purpose of appealing to their different constituencies, not serious differences of opinion as to what the role of government ought to be. This is the reality of bipartisanship. Sadly our system handsomely rewards those who lobby well and in a bipartisan fashion. Congressional service too often is a training ground or a farm system for the ultimate government service: lobbying Congress for the benefit of powerful and wealthy special interests.
It should be clearly evident, however, that all the campaign finance reforms and lobbying controls conceivable will not help the situation. Limiting the right to petition Congress or restricting people's right to spend their own money will always fail and is not morally acceptable and misses the point. As long as government has so much to offer, public officials will be tempted to accept the generous offers of support from special interests. Those who can benefit have too much at stake not to be in the business of influencing government. Eliminating the power of government to pass out favors is the only real solution. Short of that, the only other reasonable solution must come by members' refusal to be influenced by the pressure that special-interest money can exert. This requires moral restraint by our leaders. Since this has not happened, special-interest favoritism has continued to grow.
The bipartisanship of the last 50 years has allowed our government to gain control over half of the income of most Americans. Being enslaved half the time is hardly a good compromise. But supporters of the political status quo point out that, in spite of the loss of personal freedom, the country continues to thrive in many ways.
But there are some serious questions that we as a people must answer:
Is this prosperity real?
Will it be long lasting?
What is the cost in economic terms?
Have we sacrificed our liberties for government security?
Have we undermined the very system that has allowed productive effort to provide a high standard of living for so many?
Has this system in recent years excluded some from the benefits that Wall Street and others have enjoyed?
Has it led to needless and dangerous US intervention overseas and created problems that we are not yet fully aware of?
Is it morally permissible in a country that professes to respect individual liberty to routinely give handouts to the poor, and provide benefits to the privileged and rich by stealing the fruits of labor from hard-working Americans?
As we move into the next Congress, some worry that gridlock will make it impossible to get needed legislation passed. This seems highly unlikely. If big government supporters found ways to enlarge the government in the past, the current evenly split Congress will hardly impede this trend and may even accelerate it. With a recession on the horizon, both sides will be more eager than ever to cooperate on expanding federal spending to stimulate the economy, whether the fictitious budget surplus shrinks or not.
In this frantic effort to take care of the economy, promote education, save Social Security, and provide for the medical needs of all Americans, no serious discussion will take place on the political conditions required for a free people to thrive. If not, all efforts to patch the current system together will be at the expense of personal liberty, private property, and sound money.
If we are truly taking a more dangerous course, the biggest question is: How long will it be before a major political-economic crisis engulfs our land? That, of course, is not known, and certainly not necessary if we as a people and especially the Congress understand the nature of the crisis and do something to prevent the crisis from undermining our liberties. We should, instead, encourage prosperity by avoiding any international conflict that threatens our safety or wastefully consumes our needed resources.
Congressional leaders have a responsibility to work together for the good of the country. But working together to promote a giant interventionist state dangerous to us all is far different from working together to preserve constitutionally protected liberties.
Many argue that the compromise of bipartisanship is needed to get even a little of what the limited-government advocates want. But this is a fallacious argument. More freedom can never be gained by giving up freedom, no matter the rationale.
If liberals want $46 billion for the Department of Education and conservatives argue for $42 billion, a compromise of $44 billion is a total victory for the advocates of federal government control of public education. "Saving" $2 billion means nothing in the scheme of things, especially since the case for the constitutional position of zero funding was never entertained. When the budget and government controls are expanding each year, a token cut in the proposed increase means nothing, and those who claim it to be a legitimate victory do great harm to the cause of liberty by condoning the process. Instead of it being a Third Way alternative to the two sides arguing over minor details on how to use government force, the three options instead are philosophically the same. A true alternative must be offered if the growth of the state is to be contained. Third Way bipartisanship is not the answer.
However, if in the future, the constitutionalists argue for zero funding for the Education Department, and the liberals argue to increase it to $50 billion, and finally $25 billion is accepted as the compromise, progress will have been made.
But this is not what is being talked about in DC when an effort is made to find a Third Way. Both sides are talking about expanding government, and neither side questions the legitimacy of the particular program involved. Unless the moral and constitutional debate changes, there can be no hope that the trend toward bigger government with a sustained attack on personal liberty will be reversed. It must become a moral and constitutional issue.
Budgetary tokenism hides the real issue. Even if someone claims to have just saved the taxpayers a couple billion dollars, the deception does great harm in the long run by failure to emphasize the importance of the Constitution and the moral principles of liberty. It instead helps to deceive the people into believing something productive is being done. But it's really worse than that, because neither party makes an effort to cut the budget. The American people must prepare themselves for ever-more spending and taxes.
A different approach is needed if we want to protect the freedoms of all Americans, to perpetuate prosperity, and to avoid a major military confrontation. All three options in reality represent only a variation of the one based on authoritarian and interventionist principles.
Nothing should be taken for granted, neither our liberties nor our material well-being. Understanding the nature of a free society and favorably deciding on its merit are required before true reform can be expected. If, however, satisfaction and complacency with the current trend toward bigger and more centralized government remain the dominant view, those who love liberty more than promised security must be prepared for an unpleasant future. And those alternative plans will surely vary from one another. Tragically for some it will contribute to the violence that will surely come when promises of government security are not forthcoming. We can expect further violations of civil liberties by a government determined to maintain order when difficult economic and political conditions develop.
But none of this need occur if the principles that underpin our Republic, as designed by the Founders, can be resurrected and reinstituted. Current problems that we now confront are government created and can be much more easily dealt with when government is limited to its proper role of protecting liberty, instead of promoting a welfare-fascist state.
There are reasons to be optimistic that the principles of the Republic, the free market, and respect for private property can be restored. However, there remains good reason as well to be concerned that we must confront the serious political and economic firestorm seen on the horizon before that happens.
My concerns are threefold: the health of the economy, the potential for war, and the coming social discord. If our problems are ignored, they will further undermine the civil liberties of all Americans. The next decade will be a great challenge to all Americans.
The booming economy of the last six years has come to an end. The only question remaining is how bad the slump will be.
Although many economists expressed surprise at the sudden and serious shift in sentiment, others have been warning of its inevitability. Boom times built on central-bank credit creation always end in recession or depression. But central planners, being extremely optimistic, hope that this time it will be different; that a new era has arrived.
For several years, we've heard the endless nostrum of a technology- and productivity-driven new paradigm that would make the excesses of the 1990s permanent and real. Arguments that productivity increases made the grand prosperity of the last six years possible were accepted as conventional wisdom, although sound free-market analysts warned otherwise. We are now witnessing an economic downturn that will, in all likelihood, be quite serious. If our economic planners pursue the wrong course, they will surely make it much worse and prolong the recovery.
Although computer technology has been quite beneficial to the economy, in some ways these benefits have been misleading by hiding the ill effects of central-bank manipulation of interest rates and by causing many to believe that the usual business-cycle correction could be averted. Instead, delaying a correction that is destined to come only contributes to greater distortions in the economy, thus requiring an even greater adjustment.
It seems obvious that we are dealing with a financial bubble now deflating. Certainly, most observers recognize that the NASDAQ was grossly overpriced. The question remains, though, as to what is needed for the entire economy to reach equilibrium and allow sound growth to resume.
Western leaders for most of the 20th century have come to accept a type of central planning they believe is not burdened by the shortcomings of true socialist-type central planning. Instead of outright government ownership of the means of production, the economy was to be fine-tuned by fixing interest rates (federal funds rates), subsidizing credit (government-sponsored enterprises), stimulating sluggish segments of the economy (farming and the weapons industry), aiding the sick (Medicaid and Medicare), federally managing education (Department of Education), and many other welfare schemes.
The majority of Americans have not yet accepted the harsh reality that this less-threatening, friendlier type of economic planning is minimally more efficient than that of the socialist planners with their five-year economic plans. We must face the fact that the business cycle, with its recurring recessions, wage controls, wealth transfers, and social discord are still with us and will get worse unless there is a fundamental change in economic and monetary policy. Regardless of the type, central economic planning is a dangerous notion.
In an economic downturn, a large majority of our political leaders believe that the ill effects of recession can be greatly minimized by monetary and fiscal policy. Although cutting taxes is always beneficial, spending one's way out of a recession is no panacea. Even if some help is gained by cutting taxes or temporary relief given by an increase in government spending, they distract from the real cause of the downturn: previously pursued faulty monetary policy. The consequences of interest-rate manipulation in a recession — along with tax and spending changes — are unpredictable and do not always produce the same results each time they're used. This is why interest rates of less than 1 percent and massive spending programs have not revitalized Japan's economy or her stock market. We may well be witnessing the beginning of a major worldwide economic downturn, making even more unpredictable the consequence of conventional Western-style central bank tinkering.
There's good reason to believe the Congress and the American people ought to be concerned and start preparing for a slump that could play havoc with our federal budget and the value of the American dollar. Certainly the Congress has a profound responsibility in this area. If we ignore the problems, or continue to endorse the economic myths of past generations, our prosperity will be threatened. But our liberties could be lost, as well, if expanding the government's role in the economy is pursued as the only solution to the crisis.
It's important to understand how we got ourselves into this mess. The blind faith that wealth and capital can be created by the central bank's creating money and credit out of thin air, using government debt as its collateral, along with fixing short-term interest rates, is a myth that must one day be dispelled. All the hopes of productivity increases in a dreamed-about new-era economy cannot repeal eternal economic laws.
The big shift in sentiment of the past several months has come with a loss of confidence in the status of the new paradigm. If we're not careful, the likely weakening of the US dollar could lead to a loss of confidence in America and all her institutions. US political and economic power has propped up the world economy for years. Trust in the dollar has given us license to borrow and spend way beyond our means. But just because world conditions have allowed us greater leverage to borrow and inflate the currency than otherwise might have been permitted, the economic limitations of such a policy still exist. This trust, however, did allow for a greater financial bubble to develop and dislocations to last longer, compared to similar excesses in less powerful nations.
There is one remnant of the Bretton Woods gold-exchange standard that has aided US dominance over the past 30 years. Gold was once the reserve all central banks held to back up their currencies. After World War II, the world's central banks were satisfied to hold dollars, still considered to be as good as gold since internationally the dollar could still be exchanged for gold at $35 an ounce. When the system broke down in 1971, and we defaulted on our promises to pay in gold, chaos broke out. By default the dollar maintained its status as the reserve currency of the world.
This is true, even to this day. The dollar still represents approximately 77 percent of all world central-bank reserves. This means that the United States has license to steal. We print the money and spend it overseas, while world trust continues because of our dominant economic and military power. This results in a current account and trade deficit so large that almost all economists agree that it cannot last. The longer and more extensive the distortions in the international market, the greater will be the crisis when the market dictates a correction. And that's what we're starting to see.
When the recession hits full force, even the extraordinary power and influence of Alan Greenspan and the Federal Reserve, along with all the other central banks of the world, won't be able to stop the powerful natural economic forces that demand equilibrium. Liquidation of unreasonable debt and the elimination of the over-capacity built into the system and a return to trustworthy money and trustworthy government will be necessary. Quite an undertaking!
Instead of looking at the real cost and actual reasons for the recent good years, politicians and many Americans have been all too eager to accept the new-found wealth as permanent and deserved, as part of a grand new era. Even with a national debt that continued to grow, all the talk in DC was about how to handle the magnificent budget surpluses.
Since 1998, when it was announced that we had a budgetary surplus to deal with, the national debt has nevertheless grown by more than $230 billion, albeit at a rate less than in the early 1990s, but certainly a sum that should not be ignored. But the really big borrowing has been what the United States as a whole has borrowed from foreigners to pay for the huge deficit we have in our current account. We are now by far the largest foreign debtor in the world and in all of history.
This convenient arrangement has allowed us to live beyond our means and, according to long-understood economic laws, must end. A declining dollar confirms that our ability to painlessly borrow huge sums will no longer be cheap or wise.
During the past 30 years in the post–Bretton Woods era, worldwide sentiment has permitted us to inflate our money supply and get others to accept the dollar as if it were as good as gold. This convenient arrangement has discouraged savings, which are now at a historic low. Savings in a capitalist economy are crucial for furnishing capital and establishing market interest rates. With negative savings and with the Fed fixing rates by creating credit out of thin air and calling it capital, we have abandoned a necessary part of free-market capitalism, without which a smooth and growing economy is unsustainable.
No one should be surprised when recessions hit or bewildered as to their cause or danger. The greater surprise should be the endurance of an economy fine-tuned by a manipulative central bank and a compulsively interventionist Congress. But the full payment for all past economic sins may now be required. Let's hope we can keep the pain and suffering to a minimum.
The most recent new era of the 1990s appeared to be an answer to all politicians' dreams: a good economy, low unemployment, minimal price inflation, a skyrocketing stock market, with capital gains tax revenues flooding the Treasury, thus providing money to accommodate every special-interest demand. But it was too good to be true. It was based on an inflated currency and massive corporate, personal, and government borrowing. A recession was inevitable to pay for the extravagance that many knew was an inherent part of the new era, understanding that abundance without a commensurate amount of work was not achievable.
The mantra now is for the Fed to quickly lower short-term interest rates to stimulate the economy and alleviate a liquidity crisis. This policy may stimulate a boom and may help in a mild downturn, but it doesn't always work in a bad recession. It actually could do great harm since it could weaken the dollar, which in turn would allow market forces instead to push long-term interest rates higher. Deliberately lowering interest rates isn't even necessary for the dollar to drop, since our policy has led to a current-account deficit of a magnitude that demands the dollar eventually readjust and weaken.
A slumping stock market will also cause the dollar to decline and interest rates to rise. Federal Reserve Board central planning through interest-rate control is not a panacea. It is instead the culprit that produces the business cycle. Government and Fed officials have been reassuring the public that no structural problem exists, citing no inflation and a gold price that reassures the world that the dollar is indeed still king.
The Fed can create excess credit, but it can't control where it goes as it circulates throughout the economy; nor can it dictate value either. Claiming that a subdued government-rigged CPI and PPI proves that no inflation exists is pure nonsense. It is well established that, under certain circumstances, new credit inflation can find its way into the stock or real estate market, as it did in the 1920s, while consumer prices remain relatively stable. This does not negate the distortion inherent in a system charged with artificially low interest rates. Instead it allows the distortion to last longer and become more serious, leading to a bigger correction.
If gold prices reflected the true extent of the inflated dollar, confidence in the dollar specifically and in paper more generally would be undermined. It is a high priority of the Fed and all central banks of the world for this not to happen. Revealing to the public the fraud associated with all paper money would cause loss of credibility of all central banks. This knowledge would jeopardize the central banks' ability to perform the role of lender of last resort and to finance/monetize government debt. It is for this reason that the price of gold in their eyes must be held in check.
From 1945 to 1971, the United States literally dumped nearly 500 million ounces of gold at $35 an ounce in an effort to do the same thing by continuing the policy of printing money at will, with the hopes that there would be no consequences to the value of the dollar. That all ended in 1971 when the markets overwhelmed the world central banks.
A similar effort continues today, with central banks selling and loaning gold to keep the price in check. It's working and does convey false confidence, but it can't last. Most Americans are wise to the government's statistics regarding prices and the "no-inflation" rhetoric. Everyone is aware that the prices of oil, gasoline, natural gas, medical care, repairs, houses, and entertainment have all been rapidly rising. The artificially low gold price has aided the government's charade, but it has also allowed a bigger bubble to develop. This policy cannot continue. Economic law dictates a correction that most Americans will find distasteful and painful. Duration and severity of the liquidation phase of the business cycle can be limited by proper responses, but it cannot be avoided and could be made worse if the wrong course is chosen.
Recent deterioration of the junk-bond market indicates how serious the situation is. Junk bonds are now paying 9 percent to 10 percent more than short-term government securities. The quality of business loans is suffering, while more and more corporate bonds are qualifying for junk status. The Fed tries to reassure us by attempting to stimulate the economy with low short-term federal fund rates at the same time interest rates for businesses and consumers are rising. There comes a time when Fed policy is ineffective, much to everyone's chagrin.
Micromanaging an economy effectively for a long period of time, even with the power a central bank wields, is an impossible task. The good times are ephemeral and eventually must be paid for by contraction and renewed real savings.
There is much more to inflation than rising prices. Inflation is defined as the increase in the supply of money and credit. Obsessively sticking to the rising prices definition conveniently ignores placing the blame on the responsible party — the Federal Reserve. The last thing central banks or the politicians, who need a backup for all their spending mischief, want is for the government to lose its power to create money out of thin air, which serves political and privileged financial interests.
When the people are forced to think only about rising prices, government-doctored price indices can dampen concerns for inflation. Blame then can be laid at the doorstep of corporate profiteers, price gougers, labor unions, oil sheikhs, or greedy doctors. But it is never placed at the feet of highly paid athletes or entertainers. It would be economically incorrect to do so, but it's political correctness that doesn't allow some groups to be vilified.
Much else related to artificially low interest rates goes unnoticed. An overpriced stock market, overcapacity in certain industries, excesses in real-estate markets, artificially high bond prices, general malinvestments, excessive debt, and speculation all result from the generous and artificial credit the Federal Reserve pumps into the financial system. These distortions are every bit, if not more, harmful than rising prices. As the economy soars from the stimulus effect of low interest rates, growth and distortions compound themselves. In a slump the reverse is true, and the pain and suffering is magnified as the adjustment back to reality occurs.
The extra credit in the 1990s has found its way especially into the housing market like never before. GSEs, in particular Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, have gobbled up huge sums to finance a booming housing market. GSE securities enjoy implicit government guarantees, which have allowed for a generous discount on most housing loans. They have also been the vehicles used by consumers to refinance and borrow against their home equity to use these funds for other purposes, such as investing in the stock market. This has further undermined savings by using the equity that builds with price inflation that homeowners enjoy when money is debased. In addition, the Federal Reserve now buys and holds GSE securities as collateral in their monetary operations. These securities are then literally used as collateral for printing Federal Reserve notes; this is a dangerous precedent.
If monetary inflation merely raised prices, and all prices and labor costs moved up at the same rate, and it did not cause disequilibrium in the market, it would be of little consequence. But inflation is far more than rising prices. Creating money out of thin air is morally equivalent to counterfeiting. It's fraud and theft, because it steals purchasing power from the savers and those on fixed incomes. That in itself should compel all nations to prohibit it, as did the authors of our Constitution.
Inflation is socially disruptive in that the management of fiat money — as all today's currencies are — causes great hardships. Unemployment is a direct consequence of the constantly recurring recessions. Persistent rising costs impoverish many as the standard of living of unfortunate groups erodes. Because the pain and suffering that comes from monetary debasement is never evenly distributed, certain segments of society can actually benefit.
In the 1990s, Wall Streeters thrived, while some low-income, nonwelfare, nonhomeowners suffered with rising costs for fuel, rent, repairs, and medical care. Generally one should expect the middle class to suffer and to literally be wiped out in a severe inflation. When this happens, as it did in many countries throughout the 20th century, social and political conflicts become paramount when finger pointing becomes commonplace by those who suffer looking for scapegoats. Almost always the hostility is inaccurately directed.
There is a greater threat from the monetary mischief than just the economic harm it does. The threat to liberty resulting when economic strife hits and finger-pointing increases should concern us most. We should never be complacent about monetary policy.
We must reassess the responsibility Congress has in maintaining a sound monetary system. In the 19th century, the constitutionality of a central bank was questioned and challenged. Not until 1913 were the advocates of a strong federalist system able to foist a powerful central bank on us, while destroying the gold standard. This banking system, which now serves as the financial arm of Congress, has chosen to pursue massive welfare spending and a foreign policy that has caused us to be at war for much of the 20th century.
Without the central bank creating money out of thin air, our welfare state and worldwide imperialism would have been impossible to finance. Attempts at economic fine-tuning by monetary authorities would have been impossible without a powerful central bank. Propping up the stock market as it falters would be impossible as well.
But the day will come when we will have no choice but to question the current system. Yes, the Fed does help to finance the welfare state. Yes, the Fed does come to the rescue when funds are needed to fight wars and for us to pay the cost of maintaining our empire. Yes, the Fed is able to stimulate the economy and help create what appear to be good times. But it's all built on an illusion. Wealth cannot come from a printing press. Empires crumble and a price is eventually paid for arrogance toward others. And booms inevitably turn into busts.
Talk of a new era the past five years has had many, including Greenspan, believing that this time it really would be different. And it may indeed be different this time. The correction could be an especially big one, since the Fed-driven distortion of the past 10 years, plus the lingering distortions of previous decades have been massive. The correction could be big enough to challenge all our institutions, the entire welfare state, Social Security, foreign intervention, and our national defense. This will only happen if the dollar is knocked off its pedestal. No one knows if that is going to happen sooner or later. But when it does, our constitutional system of government will be challenged to the core.
Ultimately the solution will require a recommitment to the principles of liberty, including a belief in sound money — when money once again will be something of value rather than pieces of paper or mere blips from a Federal Reserve computer. In spite of the grand technological revolution, we are still having trouble with a few simple basic tasks — counting votes or keeping the lights on or understanding the sinister nature of paper money.
Potential for War
Foreign military interventionism, a policy the United States has followed for over 100 years, encourages war and undermines peace. Even with the good intentions of many who support this policy, it serves the interests of powerful commercial entities. Perpetual conflicts stimulate military spending. Minimal and small wars too often get out of control and cause more tragedy than originally anticipated. Small wars like the Persian Gulf War are more easily tolerated, but the foolishness of an out-of-control war like Vietnam is met with resistance from a justifiably aroused nation. But both types of conflicts result from the same flawed foreign policy of foreign interventionism. Both types of conflicts can be prevented.
National security is usually cited to justify our foreign involvement, but this excuse distracts from the real reason we venture so far from home. Influential commercial interests dictate policy of when and where we go. Persian Gulf oil obviously got more attention than genocide in Rwanda. If one were truly concerned about our security and enhancing peace, one would always opt for a less militarist policy. It's not a coincidence that US territory and US citizens are the most vulnerable in the world to terrorist attacks. Escalation of the war on terrorism and not understanding its cause is a dangerous temptation.
Not only does foreign interventionism undermine chances for peace and prosperity, it undermines personal liberty. War and preparing for war must always be undertaken at someone's expense. Someone must pay the bills with higher taxes, and someone has to be available to pay with their lives. It's never the political and industrial leaders who promote the policy who pay. They are the ones who reap the benefits, while at the same time arguing for the policy they claim is designed to protect freedom and prosperity for the very ones being victimized.
Many reasons given for our willingness to police the world sound reasonable: We need to protect our oil. We need to stop cocaine production in Colombia. We need to bring peace to the Middle East. We need to punish our adversaries. We must respond because we are the sole superpower and it's our responsibility to maintain world order. It's our moral obligation to settle disputes. We must follow up on our dollar diplomacy after sending foreign aid throughout the world. In the old days it was: we need to stop the spread of Communism. The excuses are endless!
But it's rarely mentioned that the lobbyists and proponents of foreign intervention are the weapons manufacturers, the oil companies, and the recipients of huge contracts for building infrastructure in whatever far corner of the earth we send our troops to. Financial interests have a lot at stake, and it's important for them that the United States maintains its empire. Not infrequently, ethnic groups will influence foreign policy for reasons other than preserving our security. This type of political pressure can at times be substantial and emotional.
We often try to please too many, and by doing so support both sides of conflicts that have raged for centuries. In the end, our efforts can end up unifying our adversaries while alienating our friends.
Over the past 50 years, Congress has allowed our presidents to usurp the prerogatives the Constitution explicitly gave only to the Congress. The term foreign policy is never mentioned in the Constitution and it was never intended to be monopolized by the president. Going to war was to be strictly a legislative function, not an executive one.
Operating foreign policy by executive orders and invoking unratified treaties is a slap in the face to the rule of law and our republican form of government. But that's currently being done.
US policy over the past 50 years has led to endless illegal military interventions, from Korea to our ongoing war with Iraq and military occupations in the Balkans. Many Americans have died and many others have been wounded or injured or have been forgotten. Numerous innocent victims living in foreign lands have died, as well, from the bombing and blockades we have imposed. They have been people with whom we have had no fight but who were trapped between the bad policy of their own leaders and our eagerness to demonstrate our prowess to the world. Over 500,000 Iraqi children have reportedly died as a consequence of our bombing and denying food and medicine by our embargo.
For over 50 years, there has been a precise move toward one-world government at the expense of our own sovereignty. Our presidents claim that authority to wage war can come from the United Nations or NATO resolutions, in contradiction of our Constitution and everything our Founding Fathers believed. US troops are now required to serve under foreign commanders and wear UN insignias. Refusal to do so prompts a court martial.
The past president, before leaving office, signed the 1998 UN Rome Treaty, indicating our willingness to establish an International Criminal Court. This gives the UN authority to enforce global laws against Americans if ratified by the Senate. Even without ratification, we have gotten to the point where treaties of this sort can be imposed on nonparticipating nations. Presidents have, by Executive Order, been willing to follow unratified treaties in the past. This is a very dangerous precedent.
We already accept the WTO and its international trade court. Trade wars are fought with this court's supervision, and we are only too ready to rewrite our tax laws as the WTO dictates. The only portion of the major tax bill at the end of the last Congress to be rushed through for the president's signature was the Foreign Sales Corporation changes dictated to us by the WTO.
For years the United States has accepted the international financial and currency management of the IMF — another arm of one-world government.
The World Bank serves as the distributor of international welfare, of which the US taxpayer is the biggest donor. This organization helps carry out a policy of taking money from poor Americans and giving it to rich foreign leaders, with kickbacks to some of our international corporations. Support for the World Bank, the IMF, the WTO, and the International Criminal Court always comes from the elites and almost never from the common man.
These programs run by the international institutions are supposed to help the poor, but they never do. It's all a charade, and if left unchecked, they will bankrupt us and encourage more world-government mischief.
It's the responsibility of Congress to curtail this trend by reestablishing the principles of the US Constitution and our national sovereignty. It's time for the United States to give up its membership in all these international organizations.
Our foreign policy has led to an incestuous relationship between our military and Hollywood. In December, Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen used $295,000 of taxpayer money to host a party in Los Angeles for Hollywood bigwigs. Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon said it was well worth it. The purpose was to thank the movie industry for putting the military in a good light. A similar relationship has been reported with TV stations licensed by the US government. They have been willing to accept suggestions from the government to place political messages in their programming. This is a dangerous trend, mixing government and the media. Now here's where real separation is needed!
Our policy should change for several reasons. It's wrong for our foreign policy to serve any special interest, whether it's for financial benefits, ethnic pressures, or some contrived moral imperative. Too often the policy leads to an unintended consequence, and more people are killed and more property damaged than was intended. Controlling world events is never easy. It's better to avoid the chance of one bad decision leading to another. The best way to do that is to follow the advice of the Founders and avoid all entangling alliances and pursue a policy designed solely to protect US national-security interests.
The two areas in the world that currently present the greatest danger to the United States are Colombia and the Middle East. For decades, we have been engulfed in the ancient wars of the Middle East by subsidizing and supporting both sides. This policy is destined to fail. We are in great danger of becoming involved in a vicious war for oil, as well as being drawn into a religious war that will not end in our lifetime. The potential for war in this region is great, and the next one could make the Persian Gulf War look small. Only a reassessment of our entire policy will keep us from being involved in a needless and dangerous war in this region.
It will be difficult to separate any involvement in the Balkans from a major conflict that breaks out in the Middle East. It's impossible for us to maintain a policy that both supports Israel and provides security for Western-leaning secular Arab leaders, while at the same time taunting the Islamic fundamentalists. Push will come to shove, and when that happens in the midst of an economic crisis, our resources will be stretched beyond the limit. This must be prevented.
Our involvement in Colombia could easily escalate into a regional war. For over 100 years, we have been involved in the affairs of Central America, but the recent escalation of our presence in Colombia is inviting trouble for us.
Although the justification for our enhanced presence is the War on Drugs, protecting US oil interests and selling helicopters are the real reasons for last years' $1.3 billion emergency funding. Already neighboring countries have expressed concern about our presence in Colombia. The US policymakers gave their usual response by promising more money and support to the neighboring countries that feel threatened.
Venezuela, rich in oil, is quite nervous about our enhanced presence in the region. Their foreign minister stated that if any of our ships enter the Gulf of Venezuela they will be expelled. This statement was prompted by an overly aggressive US Coast Guard vessel's intrusion into Venezuelan territorial waters on a drug expedition. I know of no one who believes this expanded and insane drug war will do anything to dampen drug usage in the United States. Yet it will cost us plenty. Too bad our political leaders cannot take a hint. The war effort in Colombia is small now, but under current conditions it will surely escalate. This is a 30-year-old civil war being fought in the jungles of South America. We are unwelcome by many, and we ought to have enough sense to stay out of it. Recently new policy has led to the spraying of herbicides to destroy the coca fields. It's already been reported that the legal crops in nearby fields have been destroyed as well. This is no way to win friends around the world.
There are many other areas of the world where we ought to take a second look, and then come home. Instead of bullying the European Union for wanting to have their own rapid deployment force, we should praise them and bring our troops home. World War II has been over for 55 years.
It's time we look at Korea and ask why we have to broker, with the use of American dollars and American soldiers, the final settlement between North and South Korea.
Taiwan and China are now trading and investing in each other's country. Travel restrictions have been recently liberalized. It's time for us to let the two of them settle their border dispute.
We continue to support Turkey with dollars and weapons. We once supported Iraq with the same. Now we permit Turkey, armed with American weapons, to kill Kurds in Iraq, while we bomb the Iraqis if they do the same. It makes no sense.
Selling weapons to both factions of almost all the major conflicts of the past 50 years reveals that our involvement is more about selling weapons than spreading the message of freedom. That message can never be delivered through force to others over their objection. Only a policy of peace, friendship, trade, and our setting a good example can inspire others to look to what once was the American tradition of liberty and justice for all. Entangling alliances won't do it. It's time for Congress and the American people to wake up.
The political system of interventionism always leads to social discord. Interventionism is based on relative rights, majoritarianism, and disrespect for the Constitution. Degenerating moral standards of the people encourages and feeds on this system of special-interest favoritism, all of which contribute to the friction.
Thomas Jefferson was worried that future generations might squander the liberties the American Revolution secured. Writing about future generations, Jefferson wondered if "in the enjoyment of plenty, they would lose the memory of freedom." He believed, "Material abundance without character is the path to destruction."
The challenge to America today is clearly evident. We lack character, and we also suffer from a loss of respect, understanding, and faith in the liberty that offers so much. The American Republic has been transformed and only a remnant remains. It appears that in the midst of plenty, we have forgotten about freedom.
We have just gone through a roaring decade with many Americans enjoying prosperity beyond their wildest dreams. Because this wealth was not always earned and instead resulted from borrowing, speculation, and inflation, the correction that's to come will contribute to the social discord already inherent in a system of government interventionism. If, indeed, the economy enters a severe recession, which is highly possible, it will compound the problems characteristic of a system that encourages government supervision over all that we do.
Conflicts between classes, races, ethnic groups, and even generations are already apparent. This is a consequence of pitting workers and producers against moochers and the special-interest rich. Divvying up half of the GDP through a process of confiscatory taxation invites trouble. It is more easily tolerated when wealth abounds; but when the economy slips, quiescent resentment quickly turns to noisy confrontation. Those who feel slighted become more demanding at the same time resources are diminished.
But the system of government we have become accustomed to has, for decades, taken over responsibilities that were never intended to be the prerogative of the federal government under the Constitution. Although mostly well intended, the efforts at social engineering have caused significant damage to our constitutional Republic and have resulted in cynicism toward all politicians. Our presidents are now elected by less than 20 percent of those old enough to vote. Government is perceived to be in the business of passing out favors rather than protecting individual liberty. The majority of the people are made up of independents and nonvoters.
The ill-conceived drug war of the past 30 years has caused great harm to our society. It has undermined privacy and challenged the constitutional rights of all our citizens. The accelerated attack on drug usage since the early 1970s has not resulted in any material benefit. Over $300 billion has been spent on this war, and we are all less free and poorer because of it. Civil liberties are sacrificed in all wars, both domestic and foreign. It's clear that, even if it were a legitimate function for government to curtail drug usage, eliminating bad habits through government regulation is not achievable. Like so much else that government tries to do, the harm done is not always evenly distributed. Some groups suffer more than others, further compounding the problem by causing dissension and distrust.
Anthony Lewis of the New York Times reported last year: "The 480,000 men and women now in US prisons on drug charges are 100,000 more than all prisoners in the European Union, where the population is 100 million more than ours."
There are ten times the number of prisoners for drug offenses than there were in 1980, and 80 percent of the drug arrests are for nonviolent possession. In spite of all the money spent and energy wasted, drug usage continues at a record pace. Someday we must wake up and realize the federal drug war is a farce. It has failed and we must change our approach.
As bad as drug addiction is and the harm it causes, it is miniscule compared to the dollar cost, the loss of liberty, and social conflict that results from our ill-advised drug war.
Mandatory drug sentencing laws have done a great deal of harm by limiting the discretion that judges could use in sentencing victims in the drug war. Congress should repeal or change these laws, just as we found it beneficial to modify seizure and forfeiture laws two years ago.
The drug laws, I'm sure, were never meant to be discriminatory, yet they are. In Massachusetts, 82.9 percent of the drug offenders are minorities, but they make up only 9 percent of the state population. The fact that crack-cocaine users are more likely to land in prison than powder-cocaine users, and with harsher sentences, discriminates against black Americans. A wealthy suburbanite caught using drugs is much less likely to end up in prison than someone from the inner city. This inequity adds to the conflict between races and between the poor and the police. And it's unnecessary.
There are no documented benefits from the drug war. Even if a reduction in drug usage could have been achieved, the cost in dollars and loss of liberty would never have justified it. But we don't have that to deal with, since drug usage continues to get worse; in addition we have all the problems associated with the drug war.
The effort to diminish the use of drugs and to improve the personal habits of some of our citizens has been the excuse to undermine our freedoms. Ironically we spend hundreds of billions of dollars waging this dangerous war on drugs while government educational policies promote a huge and dangerous over-usage of Ritalin.
Seizure and forfeiture laws, clearly in violation of the Constitution, have served as a terrible incentive for many police departments to raise money for law-enforcement projects outside the normal budgeting process. Nationalizing the police force for various reasons is a trend that should frighten all Americans. The drug war has been the most important factor in this trend.
Medicinal use of illegal drugs, in particular marijuana, has been prohibited and greater human suffering has resulted. Imprisoning a person who is dying from cancer and AIDS for using his own self-cultivated marijuana is absolutely bizarre and cruel.
All addiction — alcohol and illegal drugs — should be seen as a medical problem, not a legal one. Improving behavior, just for the sake of changing unpopular habits, never works. It should never be the responsibility of government to do so. When government attempts to do this, the government and its police force become the criminals. When someone under the influence of drugs, alcohol (also a drug), or even from a lack of sleep causes injury to another, local law-enforcement officials have a responsibility. This is a far cry from the Justice Department using army tanks to bomb the Davidians because federal agents claimed an amphetamine lab was possibly on the premises.
An interventionist government, by its nature, uses any excuse to know what the people are doing. Drug laws are used to enhance the IRS agent's ability to collect every dime owed the government. These laws are used to pressure Congress to spend more dollars for foreign military operations in places such as Colombia. Artificially high drug prices allow government to clandestinely participate in the drug trade to raise funds to fight the secret controversial wars with off-budget funding. Both our friends and foes depend on the drug war at times for revenue to pursue their causes, which frequently are the same as ours.
The sooner we wake up to this seriously flawed approach to fighting drug usage the better.
The notion that the federal government has an obligation to protect us from ourselves drives the drug war. But this idea also drives the do-gooders in Washington to involve themselves in every aspect of our lives. American citizens cannot move without being constantly reminded by consumer advocates, environmentalists, safety experts, and bureaucratic busybodies what they can or cannot do.
Once government becomes our protector, there are no limits. Federal regulations dictate the amount of water in our commodes and the size and shape of our washing machines. Complicated USDA regulations dictate the size of the holes in Swiss cheese. We cannot even turn off our automobile airbags when they present a danger to a child without federal permission. Riding in a car without a seat belt may be unwise, but should it be a federal crime? Why not make us all wear rib pads and football helmets? That would reduce serious injury and save many dollars for the government health system.
Regulations on holistic medicine, natural remedies, herbs, and vitamins are now commonplace and continue to grow. Who gave the government the right to make these personal decisions for us? Are the people really so ignorant that only politicians and bureaucrats can make these delicate decisions for them?
Today if a drug shows promise for treating a serious illness, and both patient and doctor would like to try it on an experimental basis, permission can be given only by the FDA — and only after much begging and pleading. Permission frequently is not granted, even if the dying patient is pleading to take the risk. The government is not anxious to give up any of its power to make these decisions. People in government think that's what they are supposed to do for the good of the people.
Free choice is what freedom is all about. And it means freedom to take risks as well. As a physician deeply concerned about the health of all Americans, I am convinced that the government encroachment into health-care choices has been very detrimental.
There are many areas where the federal government has gotten involved when it shouldn't have, and created more problems than it solved. There is no evidence that the federal government has improved education or medicine, in spite of the massive funding and mandates of the last 40 years. Yet all we hear is a call for increased spending and more mandates. How bad it will get before we reject the big-government approach is anybody's guess.
Welfarism and government interventionism are failed systems and always lead to ever-more intrusive government. The issue of privacy is paramount. Most Americans and members of Congress recognize the need to protect everyone's privacy. But the loss of privacy is merely the symptom of an authoritarian government. Effort can and should be made, even under today's circumstances, to impede the government's invasion of privacy.
We must realize that our privacy and our liberty will always be threatened as long as we instruct our government to manage a welfare state and to operate foreign policy as if we are the world's policemen.
If the trends we have witnessed over the past 70 years are not reversed, our economic and political system will soon be transposed into a fascist system. The further along we go in that direction, the more difficult it becomes to reverse the tide without undue suffering. This cannot be done unless respect for the rule of law is restored. That means all public officials must live up to their promise to follow the written contract between the people and the government: the US Constitution.
For far too long, we have accepted the idea that government can and should take care of us. But that is not what a free society is all about. When government gives us something, it does two bad things. First it takes it from someone else; second, it causes dependency on government. A wealthy country can do this for long periods of time, but eventually the process collapses. Freedom is always sacrificed and eventually the victims rebel. As needs grow, the producers are unable or unwilling to provide the goods the government demands. Wealth then hides or escapes, going underground or overseas, prompting even more government intrusion to stop the exodus from the system. This only compounds the problem.
Endless demands and economic corrections that come with the territory will always produce deficits. An accommodating central bank then is forced to steal wealth through the inflation tax by merely printing money and creating credit out of thin air. Even though these policies may work for a while, eventually they will fail. As wealth is diminished, recovery becomes more difficult in an economy operating with a fluctuating fiat currency and a marketplace overly burdened with regulation, taxes, and inflation.
The time to correct these mistakes is prior to the bad times, before tempers flare. Congress needs to consider a new economic and foreign policy.
Why should any of us be concerned about the future, especially if prosperity is all around us? America has been truly blessed. We are involved in no major military conflict. We remain one of the freest nations on earth. Current economic conditions have allowed for low unemployment and a strong dollar, with cheap purchases from overseas further helping to keep price inflation in check. Violent crimes have been reduced and civil disorder, such as we saw in the 1960s, is absent.
But we have good reason to be concerned for our future. Prosperity can persist, even after the principles of a sound market economy have been undermined, but only for a limited period of time.
Our economic, military, and political power, second to none, has perpetuated a system of government no longer dependent on the principles that brought our Republic to greatness. Private-property rights, sound money, and self-reliance have been eroded, and they have been replaced with welfarism, paper money, and collective management of property. The new system condones special-interest cronyism and rejects individualism, profits, and voluntary contracts.
Concern for the future is real, because it's unreasonable to believe that the prosperity and relative tranquility can be maintained with the current system. Not being concerned means that one must be content with the status quo and that current conditions can be maintained with no negative consequences. That, I maintain, is a dream.
There is growing concern about our future by more and more Americans. They are especially concerned about the moral conditions expressed in our movies, music, and television programs. Less concern is expressed regarding the political and economic system. A nation's moral foundation inevitably reflects the type of government and, in turn, affects the entire economic and political system.
In some ways I am pleasantly surprised by the concern expressed about America's future, considering the prosperity we enjoy. Many Americans sense a serious problem in general, without specifically understanding the economic and political ramifications.
Inflation, the erosion of the dollar, is always worse than the government admits. It may be that more Americans are suffering than is generally admitted. Government intrusion in our lives is commonplace. Some unemployed aren't even counted. Lower-middle-class citizens have not enjoyed an increase in the standard of living many others have. The fluctuation in the stock market may have undermined confidence.
Most Americans still believe everyone has a right to a free education, but they don't connect this concept to the evidence: that getting a good education is difficult; that drugs are rampant in public schools; that safety in public schools is a serious problem; and that the cost is amazing for a system of education if one wants a real education.
The quality of medical care is slipping, and the benefits provided by government are seen by more and more people to not really be benefits at all. This trend does not make America feel more confident about the future of health care.
Let there be no doubt, many Americans are concerned about their future, even though many still argue that the problem is only that government has not done enough.
I have expressed concern that our policies are prone to lead to war, economic weakness, and social discord. Understanding the cause of these problems is crucial to finding a solution. If we opt for more government benevolence and meddling in our lives, along with more military adventurism, we have to expect an even greater attack on the civil liberties of all Americans, both rich and poor.
The question remains: can we afford to be lax in the defense of liberty at this juncture in our history? I don't think so.
The problems are not complex, and even the big ones can be easily handled if we pursue the right course. Prosperity and peace can be continued, but not with the current system that permeates Washington. To blindly hope our freedom will remain intact, without any renewed effort in its defense, or to expect that the good times will automatically continue, places our political system in great danger.
Basic morality, free markets, sound money, living within the rule of law, and adhering to the fundamental precepts that made the American Republic great are what we need. And it's worth the effort.