The Road to Serfdom vs. the People Principle

I am a co-founder of a business. Started it in 1995. It didn't last this long because we were foolish with money, clients or our reputation. We are an example of the famous American entrepreneurial spirit.

Something interesting has happened to my view of that entrepreneurial spirit as I watched the entire economic landscape alter itself before my eyes over the past few months. It has become clear that, contrary to popular American opinion, focusing on business success to the exclusion of everything else is very, very costly. What is excluded is not some principle or theory, but people with names and faces.

Many people I run into seem to be afraid that a Democratic President and Congress will turn this country into a Socialist state overnight. After dealing with the surface overreaction, something of substance emerges. An article by John Stossel called The Road to Serfdom describes this fear relatively well, even though it's a little heavy on the fear side.

The big point seems to be that bigger government equals less freedom for the individual. Putting aside the obvious fact that the last 8 years of a Republican administration have seen the largest growth in government and deficit and the greatest erosion of freedom in the history of this nation, what is a response to Stossel's fear?

It seems relatively clear: unchecked freedom results in catastrophe, such as the economic crisis we have right now. But how to prove the point? Michael Lewis' article called The End is a good place to start.

The behavior described in The End is something Mr. Average Joe like me sees as the downside of the unregulated entrepreneurial American spirit. No, I don't want to be regulated. Yes, I care about my business and about its (my) ability to do with it what I want. No, I don't want higher taxes for me personally or for my business. But I think the one thing that mitigates against the type of selfish excess exhibited in The End -- a real sense of patriotism that binds us together, protecting against squashing one's neighbor in the name of profit -- no longer exists in this country. I'd much rather have (slightly) higher taxes than the current economic crisis.

When you have people, lots of them, who not only don't understand what they're really doing with these financial vehicles but, through some blind faith in Capitalism-as-God, don't care what happens to other people as a result, it's clear to me that some fundamental changes are in order. I don't think Republicans as a whole understand just how cold-hearted and ruthless they've become, and I definitely don't think they're willing to even look at the problem squarely, let alone do something about it. And no, I don't think Obama will descend from the clouds to fix everything. I'm not happy that he's considering bailing out the auto industry. What's next, the utilities? Fast food?

To answer Stossel: in my view, the laws of economics state that selfish, myopic behavior is the road to serfdom. Gordon Gecko was absolutely right: greed is good, if only in a Darwinian sense, but laser focus on that principle alone results in exactly what we have right now.

Us humans seem to need some sort of personal suffering to begin to see each other beyond our precious economic principles. The Great Depression was just such an event. One that Mr. Greenspan was directly affected by. I have no proof of this, but I suspect that the net result of his experience is unquestioned, deep-seated faith that Americans will self-regulate. This economic crisis has proven him wrong, and he admitted it.

I don't think the necessary changes are blind to the laws of economics. I think it's clear that post-Depression generations are unflinchingly selfish, in the worst possible meaning of the word. Talk about entitlement and redistribution of wealth that people like Stossel like to talk about has already happened, on a larger scale than they're willing to admit.

As always, issues like these require balance. The principles the Republican party espouses -- the original principles, not recent ones -- need to be balanced by those of the Democratic party. Economic and personal freedom balanced with the need to live together and to treat each other, whether rich or poor, with dignity.

I hope Obama has the charisma and guts to go after such a balance.