Love It or Leave It: The End of Government as the Problem by Mark Manney - HTML preview

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I guess every American President tells us that we are all united because we are all Americans.  They tell us that, while we may have our differences, what matters most is that we are all Americans.  What exactly does it mean to be an American?  What are some of the values that each and every one of us share?

Americans think differently than people in other countries.  If we are true American patriots, it seems that most of us believe that our thinking should go something like this:

1)      Capitalism (or the free market) is the source of all wealth and prosperity and solves all problems as long as it is not interfered with, and

2)      American Democracy, based on the Constitution, is the most perfect form of government the world has ever seen, and

3)      Even if America isn’t always perfect, if we are hard-working and self-reliant enough, we all have a shot at the American Dream (which is something completely unique to America), and

4)      If you have any fundamental questions or doubts concerning points 1 – 3, then you are not truly American and, as the saying goes, you can “love it or leave it.”

Isn’t this at least part of what we mean when we talk about the idea of being a “true American”?  Here’s the problem I have: there isn’t an American alive who will not have some kind of fundamental problem with at least some of these points!  I would argue that I don’t know if anyone can actually get to the “love it” part anymore!  Please, don’t get worked-up.  I’m on your side.  I am not anti-American and nothing I will say should offend you.  Please allow me to continue.

As I said, the first point is that the free market is the source of all wealth and prosperity and it solves all problems as long as it is not interfered with.  Liberals would argue that the market does not actually take care of everything.  The market does some things perfectly well, but other functions (like building roads, managing social programs to fight poverty, providing law enforcement, fire departments, defense, the legal system, etc.) are best left to the government.  Furthermore, the trouble Liberals have with leaving everything up to the market is the issue of social justice.  They feel that, in the Judeo-Christian tradition, it is moral and right to help the poor and the less fortunate.  They don’t believe that charity, alone, is enough to make sure that no single person is left behind to suffer, die of starvation, or freeze in the cold in hopeless poverty.  They believe that, in a prosperous country, it is an acceptable and necessary sacrifice for all of us to pay enough in taxes so that we can make sure that life is less brutal and short for the less fortunate among us.

Liberals also believe that the government has a big role in creating a strong middle-class.  This is done, in part, by ensuring equal opportunity for every child.  The market does not provide equal opportunity by itself (it naturally favors the already-rich because money buys more opportunity and some people are born rich).  So they believe, in short, in a social safety-net and in equal opportunity.  These people object to the very premise of the idea that the free market is the source of all wealth and prosperity and solves all problems as long as it is not interfered with.

On the flip side, true believers in free market economics actually object to this idea on entirely different grounds.  While they may believe the idea is correct, they still cannot get to the “America, love it” part because the US government clearly is not adhering to the idea.  They feel as though the government is too socialist, that it taxes too much and spends too much on wasteful and ineffective social programs.  They see that the government puts far too much regulation on business (minimum wage laws, a complicated tax system, regulations about hiring and firing, safety regulations, sales taxes, licensing, etc., etc.).  They might even notice that the current economic system in the US looks more like a rigged market than a free market.  The government seems to be mostly just taking care of big finance, big oil, big auto, big defense, big insurance, big, big, big.  The government sets up policies which basically ensure that true competition never actually happens, that the already large and powerful corporations maintain their favored and protected status while the small business owner stands no real chance to compete on a level playing-field.  This isn’t exactly Capitalism we’re talking about, is it?   

So how exactly are we supposed to all be united under this “capitalist ideal” when pure Capitalism doesn’t actually exist in the USA and, even if it did, a large portion of the country doesn’t share the ideal anyway?  Regardless of which side of this argument you are on, both of these opinions must be recognized simply because they are the honest beliefs and observations of real people.  “Love it or leave it”, they say, huh?   

If you favor a Liberal state of true equal opportunity, social justice, and a social safety-net, you cannot love the fact that children are not guaranteed even healthcare when they are sick.  You cannot love the fact that University is becoming so expensive that it is only available to wealthier individuals (or those with athletic abilities).  If this is your belief system, you are correct to fundamentally disagree with the first statement.  You might, indeed, have legitimate issues in getting to the “love it” part. 

On the other hand, if you are a true believer in the free market ideal, then you are also correct not to love that what we have seen in the US over the past 100+ years is not free market capitalism – far from it.  As I said, the government does interfere all the time with socialist programs and in so many other ways.  So if these four points at the start of this chapter are the ways we are going to define what it means to love America, and we already can’t love point one, what are we to conclude?  But let’s go on to the next point.

American Democracy, based on the US Constitution, is the most perfect form of government the world has ever seen, right?  There are several ways to interpret this statement.  Once again, are we thinking of our government as it actually is, or are we referring to the idea of the Constitution?  I ask this because, even if we do have complete faith in the Constitution, it might also be noted that the Constitution was not, and is not, always followed perfectly.  But if the Constitution is so perfect, then why exactly is it not perfect enough to ensure that it is actually followed?  Doesn’t the Constitution describe the way our government was supposed to work?  How can we, in good faith, say that the system created by the Constitution is not working so well and yet the document is perfect?

Anyway, when I’m talking about US Democracy, I’m talking about US Democracy as it actually exists.  These days, Washington just doesn’t seem to work.  It doesn’t seem to get anything done that has any real impact on our real lives.  Americans who feel this way might simply not “love it” on the grounds that Washington has just become bad at governing.

Perhaps, however, there is a portion of the population that is completely happy with our government as it is.  Many business executives and others who can afford to give huge campaign contributions in exchange for favors, or anyone receiving government contracts and selling their products or services to the government is likely quite happy with American Democracy as it currently is.  Anyone working for the government is also likely to be quite happy with the status quo.  Those in the media (across the board from Jon Stewart to Bill O’Reilly) are probably quite thrilled that the government gives them so much to talk about in such an entertaining way.  There might even be a bunch of people at home who actually agree with the direction of our government (though I’m not sure how many of them actually pay enough attention to know the reality about what the government is doing).  So let’s say these people are, at least, enjoying the game of Washington politics.

Now let’s talk about the American Dream.  Some of us might define the American Dream as working hard, pulling ourselves up by our own boot-straps, owning a home, etc.  I think this attitude is very admirable.  This is the type of idea that influenced me growing up and this is actually the attitude I have always lived by.  However, if I’m being completely honest, I should say that this isn’t something unique to America.  People work hard, earn lots of money, and own nice homes in many other countries around the world.  The chance of getting rich isn’t all that much better in the US anymore.  The reality is that the US tax rate is about the same as in other countries.  Another sad truth is that the US tax system is one of the most complicated in the world.  More importantly, I can tell you as a business person, in terms of opportunity, the US is a very mature, saturated market.  Just as a practical matter, it is actually a bit more difficult to succeed in business in the US because there are fewer untapped opportunities than in other, more emerging markets. 

Life can be difficult for entrepreneurs in the US.  Not only is the playing-field very competitive, but it can feel like so much is working against you.  For example, so many young, would-be entrepreneurs attend college and then end up owing so much in student loan debt that they really don’t have the luxury of taking on yet more risk to borrow even more money.  Even the most solid business ideas are often crushed under the weight of personal debt, sometimes very early in life.  This isn’t the case in many other Western countries, where those who qualify for college admission have their university paid for by the government (which eliminates the need for any student loan debt).  Also, in the US, entrepreneurs are forced to purchase their own private and very expensive health insurance because they are not working for an employer who would otherwise help provide coverage.  This is yet another incentive to stay in a job instead of starting a small business.  Connecting health insurance to a job, in fact, is a uniquely American and slightly strange way of providing healthcare.  Think of this from the perspective of a business owner.  If you do run a successful business and are in a position to hire employees, you end up having to pay the healthcare costs of those employees (on top of all the other taxes in this complicated system).  The combination of all of this makes it a bit more challenging, indeed, to become rich through self-sufficiency, hard work, and entrepreneurship in America.  It can actually be easier in other countries.  I hate to say this, because I know how Americans hate to hear it. 

I told you I would be completely honest in this book.  Here’s a twist you may not have seen coming.  After hearing what I have to tell you, you may even feel as though I am not even as American as you.  I don’t say this sarcastically.  I’m proof-reading this book again and again to look for, and delete, any sense of sarcasm.  Sarcasm is intellectual laziness, snobbery, and elitism.  The ideas of this book are too important to denigrate with sarcasm.  To mock someone else’s beliefs is to demonstrate a complete failure to put oneself in another person’s shoes.  Anyway, as I was saying, you might think I am not as American as you, the reader.  Why?

I am a US Citizen, but I actually have lived outside of the United States during the last few years.  I have done this for personal reasons.  I happened to have stumbled upon a life that suits me well, at least for the time-being, in Eastern Europe (in a country most people know nothing about – Slovakia).  It is a small country in Eastern Europe, part of the EU, and on the Euro currency.  I’m also kind of proud to say that I’ve made this move without really making a sacrifice in terms my career (there’s that all-American pride in self-reliance).  Anyway, now that you know this about me, please try to hang in there with me as you continue reading.  I hope that this book reveals an idea that will redeem me as a true American patriot in your eyes anyway.  For now, just know that I am an American and I’m on your side!

I bring this up only to compare what I have observed in Europe with the idea of the American Dream.  It is a shame, I have to admit it, but even in the tiny country where I now live, I have seen that a person’s odds seem better when starting a small business and becoming independently wealthy.  That’s because here, there is a simple 20% (very low) flat-tax.  Healthcare insurance is covered by the government automatically.  Your university education is also paid for.  On top of this, it is an emerging market still with a lot of untapped potential for hard-working individuals with good ideas.  Even if you should fail (which most businesses do no matter how great the conditions), well then there’s always a reasonably strong social safety net to help you out until you can find a job or give it another go.

What I’m saying is that, if you look at the situation in reality, the only thing unique about America in terms of opportunity is that it is actually more difficult to pull yourself up by your own boot-straps and become independently wealthy.  That’s because so much is working against you in America.  Sometimes it feels like we are swimming upstream even when we are being responsible and doing exactly as we are told.  It would seem to me that it would make sense to celebrate the fact that your country makes it more possible to become rich through hard work, not less possible, right? 

You could argue that it is probably still a bit more likely to find a higher-paying corporate job in the US than in most other countries (as I have done throughout my career).  But I don’t think “finding a good job with benefits” has much to do with the original American Dream.  Maybe those with a good job and a nice home are perfectly happy, indeed.  But, again, I don’t see what that has to do with the American Dream.  Germans, French, Brits…a huge percentage of Europeans and many Asians also have good jobs, good benefits, nice homes, and a bunch more vacation time than Americans.

What other ideas are associated with the American Dream?  Perhaps becoming uber-famous?  Well that’s also possible anywhere.  There’s nothing particularly American about it.  In fact, it is easier to become famous in a smaller country with less competition because of its smaller pool of talent.

Does any of this, what I’ve been talking about, actually have anything to do with the American Dream?  I just now realized that I haven’t even discussed the real American Dream!  Have you noticed?  I bet you sensed that there was something missing, right?  If not, that’s alright because I only realized it just now too.  But ask yourself this: what is the core idea behind the American Dream?  It actually isn’t just the idea of owning a home, becoming rich or becoming famous.  Remember?  The origin of the American Dream, the idea that inspired all of those brave people to settle the new continent to begin with…it was the idea of freedom!

Freedom goes far beyond what I’ve been talking about.  The early American settlers had lost faith that the governments in their countries would change.  They felt oppressed by the Church and wanted to practice their own forms of religion.  They dreamt of owning a piece of land, of eventually becoming self-sufficient.  They wanted to be free from oppression!  This is freedom!  The early American settlers simply wanted the freedom to change their own lives for the better.  Hundreds of years ago, America provided a real chance at freedom.  People understood that they’d be giving up comfort and taking enormous risks.  They also knew that there was no going back.  But enough people were brave enough that they came anyway, in search of the kind of freedom that was previously unimaginable.  It wasn’t for everyone, but what mattered is that it was possible at all

Where is that kind of freedom possible now?  Not in America, where every citizen gets a Social-Security number so they can track us from birth, where every citizen has to report their income and be taxed each year of their life, where we can’t have a beer at age 20 even if we are old enough to shoulder all of life’s adult responsibilities, where the government even has the power to take away our children if some bureaucrat doesn’t like how we are raising them, where we can’t grow a plant at home and smoke it if we choose to do so.  Now we’re even going to be required, by law, to buy health insurance!  We are, indeed, not truly free!  I’m not saying there is anywhere else in the world, at least that I know of, where this kind of freedom is entirely possible (though there is a good chance I’m wrong about this).  But either way, I wish America could once again become this different kind of place…this place it wants to be and claims to be!

The good news is that I have a simple, completely realistic idea to restore the possibility of true freedom in America.