Sunday, October 02, 2011

Individual choice, not government, fuels prosperity

Published in The Tennessean, Sunday, October 2, 2011

Richard J. Grant

In the 2003 movie, Master and Commander, a British warship during the Napoleonic Wars is rounding Cape Horn when a severe storm rises. The mizzen-mast breaks and falls into the sea with a square sail and parts of the mast, still held by several lines, dragging behind the ship.

A popular midshipman has also been swept overboard, and his only hope is to swim to the trailing rigging. But the wreckage is acting as an anchor that threatens to sink the ship. The storm won’t wait for the unfortunate midshipman; the commander must choose between losing one man or the possibility of losing everyone.

Suppose that the commander had waited in hope for the man overboard to swim to the rigging, and in the waiting lost the ship. Other than the loss of a military asset, lost also would be the men and their future descendants, as well as all the experience and survival lessons that might have been passed on to the benefit of future colleagues and generations. By that small increment, progress would be slowed, and more losses would be suffered in the relearning.

Such stark examples are not uncommon in life, but most parallels are obscured by complexity. We dream of “no child left behind,” and in so dreaming become a drag on the entire government education system. Rather than quickening the stragglers, we are turning the schools into slow heats that fail to challenge those who are truly educable. By not-so-small increments, each generation starts from behind what might have been passed on by those who went before.

We dream of universal health coverage, and in so dreaming restrict and retard progress in the entire health-care process. So afraid are we that someone might not get the best available care or insurance coverage, we force everyone into the same regulatory egg crate.

But professional licensing and regulation are rarely harbingers of innovation. We have less healing capacity now to the extent that previous generations allowed government officials to decide for them what the future of medical care should be.

In each of these examples, the political battles that arise are less often over the desired ends than over the means of achieving them. Only party hacks would make political campaign commercials in which Grandma gets pushed over a cliff. The rest of us want what’s best for Grandma and for everyone else. But a desire to have everything for everyone now puts future grandmas at risk.

Present-day grandmas have been put at risk not only by the politically motivated programs of the past but also by the continued weakening of those best able to provide services needed by everyone. At any age, those who are unable to take care of themselves are better off in societies where those around them have the capacity to give care. And the surest way to retard the development of that capacity is to have government force everyone into the same kind of program.

If we truly wish to provide the poor and the helpless with better services — medical, educational, housing or financial — then we need to allow greater individual choice, not less. It is precisely that freedom that allows good people to build a better and more prosperous society. But when government programs crowd out or absorb private initiatives, they risk dragging down the entire ship.

Richard J. Grant is a professor of finance and economics at Lipscomb University and a senior fellow at the Beacon Center of Tennessee. His column appears on Sundays. E-mail: . Twitter: @RichardJGrant1

Copyright © Richard J Grant 2011