The Real Culture War: Politics vs. Markets

“Yes We Can” is a good slogan.  It’s short, it’s simple, it’s positive, and it makes people feel like part of something significant.  Its certainly been shown to be effective.

Some have complained that this slogan encapsulates who President-elect Obama really is, a man talented in oratory, but light on actual policy solutions.  I don’t think this outlook is true.  He clearly has policy proposals—some more detailed than others—I just don’t agree with them.

But my worries about President-elect Obama extend beyond policy objections, which is why his “Yes We Can” mantra is worth talking about.  “Yes We Can” encapsulates Obama’s approach to governance.  His proposals for addressing problems in health care, education, employment, retirement and many of the other facets of life involve taking choices away from individuals and making these problems a project for the great “We.”  By “Yes We Can” Mr. Obama means that the government will solve your problems, that you needn’t worry about these things anymore.

Of course some problems in America must be solved by government, but those are problems created by government in the first place, problems that can only be solved by reforms that weave government back out of so many aspects of our lives.  Doctors and patients should be able to make decisions about health care, and they should be able to talk about prices and cost savings in the process.  Parents should decide what their children learn and who teaches them, not school boards or state supreme courts.  Workers shouldn’t be intimidated into joining a union of which they want no part.  Perhaps most important to point out right now is that we should be able to “gamble” our retirements in the stock market, rather than being forced to bet on the guaranteed losing bet of Social Security, a system headed for collapse.

This is the real culture war facing America.  Do we want to live in a country that empowers individuals to innovate, invent, save, and plan for their own lives?  Or do we want to live in a country where people have decided that’s too much of a burden, that their problems are too big for just themselves, and that we need politicians to solve them for us?

If we choose the later, we’re choosing a path that leads to a less prosperous society, not one that is better-off.  Wealth is created by allowing people to act freely in a society, not by burdening them with more taxes, more regulation, and more government programs that are bound to fail.

That’s because freedom creates the greatest motivation and the greatest information for sparking success.  The profit motive keeps people working hard to bring home more for themselves and their family and to create jobs for the people they care about in their communities.  That motivator combined with the price system—leaving the value of a good or service up to the law of supply and demand, not a number decided by a bureaucrat in Washington—create a system that dynamically adjusts to change and always seeks to better the people involved in it.

Obama isn’t a socialist, he’s a pragmatist who sees the government as a vehicle for positive change.  Unfortunately, government involvement in the market, even in minor ways, has an incredible capacity to undermine or skew the incentives of the market and to distort the information communicated by prices.  This all adds up to making our economy as a whole a confused mess of regulations and subsidies, rather than a decentralized and increasingly efficient marketplace.

With any luck, conservatives will turn back to their libertarian roots in the coming months and years and realize the real culture war isn’t about religious values vs. the secularists.  It’s about the individualists who believe in markets against the collectivists who believe in the unlimited power of politics.