By J.F. McKenna
A rising tide lifts all boats. So President John Kennedy lyrically observed a half-century ago. He was talking about the American economy and government’s role in supporting the free enterprise that made this nation the world’s ideal.
Today, the front-page headlines, the op-eds and the blogs reflect a very different story. A rising tide of intrusive, bloated government threatens to sink many weakened vessels, including such once proud municipal arks as Cleveland and Detroit, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh.
Readily observable in today’s tide is the flotsam generated by the federal government. The so-called helping hand of the national government has become a fist that pushes down urban recovery with burdensome regulations and the trap of fiscal dependency. Sensing the ongoing danger, some people in those cities, like refugees from Hurricane Sandy, seek safety anywhere that promises dry ground.
“I was standing in the line at Giant Eagle today, and I met a young man who lived near us in Cleveland,” Lady Carol told me as she unloaded the groceries. “He was a very bright and personable guy. He liked Cleveland a lot, and he really enjoyed talking about his job in construction. But he lost the job because of the economy, and now he’s looking for work here in western Pennsylvania. ‘There just aren’t many jobs in Cleveland,’ he said.”
Similar stories are repeated frequently, all through the region, all through the country. They’re a litany sounded in the background as the Washington pols yammer endlessly about fiscal cliffs and electoral mandates. Empty talk abounds, even as the tide swallows more territory.
This current situation calls to mind a line of political philosophy, one made popular by President Ronald Reagan. “Government is not the solution to our problem,” he said. “Government is the problem.”
Sharply underscoring that aphorism was a recent Wall Street Journal interview with political scientist Harvey Mansfield, who champions the genius of our constitutional heritage and lambastes its perversion in the Beltway and beyond. As the Harvard University professor has long contended, “The American founders wanted people to live under the Constitution. But the progressives want the Constitution to live under the American people.”
The good professor is particularly critical about the seemingly endless federal entitlements, much of that flotsam bobbing about as politicians and TV commentators distract us with the dimensional details of the fiscal cliff. I only wish I had interviewed Mansfield years ago when I embarked on the journalistic fool’s errand of writing “Total Quality Government” for Industry Week magazine. Here is a man who knows how to grasp the essence of a problem.
Mansfield told the WSJ that the cost of the welfare state is just part of the problem—albeit a major part. Cost, he told the newspaper, “is just an economic word for the common good. And if Republicans can get entitlements to be understood no longer as irrevocable but as open to negotiation and to political dispute and to reform, then I think they can accomplish something.
“What makes government dangerous to the common good is entitlements, so that you can never question what expenses have been or will be incurred,” Mansfield continued. “The Democrats said nothing about their plans for the future. All they did was attack the other side. Obama’s campaign consisted entirely of saying ‘I’m on your side’ to the American people, to those in the middle. No matter what comes next, this silence about the future is ominous.”
Which calls to mind another keen observation, this one by the iconic Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story. “Republics are created by the virtue, public spirit, and intelligence of the citizens,” he wrote in 1840. “They fall when the wise are banished from the public councils, because they dare to be honest, and the profligate are rewarded, because they flatter the people in order to betray them.”
Certainly a warning to consider as our current tide continues to rise.
CBR contributor J.F. McKenna, a longtime West Park resident, is a business journalist, communications consultant and former editor of the national manufacturing magazine Tooling & Production. He has chased stories throughout the country and as far away as Japan, Israel and that most exotic of financial lands, Wall Street. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or through his LinkedIn profile: Jos. F. McKenna.