During his April 23rd talk before the David Horowitz Freedom Center’s Wednesday Morning Club about his new book “No They Can’t,” his first work in eight years, John Stossel reminded everyone that if he had been alive in 1776, his signature might well have appeared on The Declaration Of Independence or, at the very least, one might have seen him later on at the Constitutional Convention giving advice.
Stossel, an escapee from ABC, now has his own program on the Fox Business Network. He is a self-confessed libertarian and an evangelist of common sense, who would agree with Adam Smith’s observation that: “I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good.” Certainly, “that government is best which governs least,” a sentence often attributed to George Washington but was first seen in an essay written by Thoreau, is a notion to which Stossel would also subscribe.
Channeling his inner John Stuart Mill, Stossel noted that the “We” in “Yes We Can” is the “We” of the government and not the “We” of “We The People.” For Stossel, therein lies the rub: He believes that from birth we have been programmed with a desire to be “looked after” and that this programming can lead to an easy acceptance and an eventual dependence on the government, government solutions, and in the well-meaning but cold embrace of the welfare state, which so often provides its recipients with one long swing in the government hammock. The unintended consequence of this government largesse, he says, is more dependency resulting in programs which have now become unsustainable.
There is a big difference between self-interest and narrow selfishness. Business, Stossel said, is not a zero-sum game. The merchant is happy when he sells his product and the consumer is happy to have acquired a product he desires. To demonstrate this, Stossel alluded to Adam Smith’s observation that:
It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner but from their regard to their own self-interest. We address ourselves not to their humanity but to their self-love and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.
Grasp that and you will have grasped the very heart of the matter, for capitalism reaps from the natural activities of man whereas socialism, and its concomitant central planning, requires an intellectual construct.
It has become fashionable, Stossel affirmed, for people to condemn capitalism as being unfair and to believe that only the government can curb its greedy appetite and create a level playing field providing equal opportunity for all. Its critics often expect that equal opportunity will lead to equal results and get upset at any hint of wealth disparity, which, as Stossel pointed out, is actually a natural by-product of freedom. Here he was partly reflecting Churchill’s view that “some people regard private enterprise as a predatory tiger to be shot. Others look on it as a cow they can milk. Not enough people see it as a healthy horse pulling a sturdy wagon.”
Compare, Stossel noted, the best automobile produced by a planned economy, like the one in the former Soviet Union and it satellites, with the worst automobile you could buy in America and you will see how capitalism and the competition it induces always produce a better product. Within a short time after the Berlin Wall collapsed, the Trabant, the East German motorcar, had disappeared from the marketplace. It just could not compete. Central planning has long been discredited as an economic theory except by the devotees of John Maynard Keynes and all left-wing liberals who still keep a romantic attachment to it prominently lodged in a nostalgic chamber of their minds.
Why is it, asked Stossel, that on a planet of about 7 billion people, over 2 billion of them live on less than $2.00 a day? How did Hong Kong, with no natural resources, go from being poor to rich within 50 years? Economic freedom and the rule of law does not exist in those poorer countries, he said, but where those two ingredients exist then human innovation and entrepreneurship will take root and bloom. This is how the United States accounted for over 50% of the world’s industrial production by 1890. It is what gave us the likes of Cornelius Vanderbilt, Andrew Carnegie, Henry Ford, John D. Rockefeller, Levi-Strauss, Sears Roebuck, Thomas Edison, Harvey Firestone, J.P. Morgan, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Warren Buffet.
It was clear throughout his talk that Stossel’s bête noir is the size, growth and inefficiency of government. Big government reduces our control over our own lives as it spreads its tentacles over every aspect of our existence. It cannot solve our problems but that is not to say that “We The People” cannot. He made the point that we can travel the globe making credit card purchases and withdrawing money from ATM machines abroad and within a month our statement will arrive with every transaction neatly posted and accounted for whereas the government can’t even supply machines capable of counting votes properly. This is the same compelling objection we have heard about handing over the supervision of our health care to the same government that gave us Amtrak and the Post Office, a notion that should alarm even the slowest of minds.
Decades ago it became evident that there is nothing as permanent as a temporary government program, or that if government spending was all it took to be successful then Sweden would have become the most successful country in the world and the Soviet Union would have won the Cold War. Stossel’s speech touched on many aspects of his new book in which he illustrates the truth of Milton Friedman’s quip that if the government were to be in charge of the Sahara Desert within five years there would be a shortage of sand.
Stossel made it plain that our government now operates on an intrusive and regulatory scale that is opposite to the intentions of the Founding Fathers who, it has been said, were more interested in a safe government than an efficient one; to which end they crafted and put in place slowing and blocking mechanisms: three branches of government, two legislative branches, the veto, the veto override, super majorities and judicial review. However, even with all of this it is clear that Stossel believes that the government is in danger of outgrowing the consent of the governed, even as it has already incurred their disapproval, as indicated by the lowest approval ratings for Congress since records started being kept.
For Stossel, the government has more solutions than there are problems, and it can’t resist jumping to the front of the parade pretending to lead it. But by constant and ever increasing interference, it disregards and diminishes individual freedom, discourages individual responsibility, stifles creativity and is responsible for one crisis after another while assuring us that only government intervention can help prevent the disasters of its own creation. In this regard the spirit of the government has seldom roamed beyond its own selfish interests instead of husbanding the greatest experiment in freedom the world has ever seen. This is what animates Stossel who, in “No They Can’t,” exposes the fraud that only the government knows what is best for us and is best suited to provide it.
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