Of Hope and Just Getting By

Working in Washington, D.C., and living in the D.C. suburbs as I do, I am fond of saying that I eagerly accept opportunities to get away from the Capital region and spend time in real America. That has always been a bit of an overgeneralization, expressing a usually correct but not unerring description. Washington is not real America, but there are parts of this nation that have already gotten ahead of where the smart people of Washington have been able to take the nation. Those places are not what I mean when I refer to real America.

Our large, industrial states are examples of misrule by those who assume that their ability and right to rule, and the inexhaustibility of the wealth of their cities and states, are given and immutable. Wrong on all assumptions. These states, once beacons of progress, growth, and development, are wastelands of decline: economic, social, moral, and even demographic. Millions of people—those who could—have been leaving these states for decades.

The recent bankruptcy of Detroit is a prominent symbol of where this misrule leads. At its prime a bustling metropolitan center approaching two million in population, Detroit has been steadily falling from its prime to a dilapidated city of barely 700,000 who remain to wonder where have the productive people gone, and what is to be the future?

I recently returned from spending several days in such a place, mixing with, talking with, associating in the daily lives of the ordinary people living there, people with whom I had lived as a wide-eyed teenager a generation before. I am not referring to the urban center of the state. The region I visited has been for 150 years a mixture of industrial and rural economies, and as I recalled, a happy mix. Now the villages and towns are actually smaller than in my youth and shrinking. The number of productive enterprises is fewer and those that remain, smaller. The schools have remarkably fewer students and struggle with how to keep their programs going with declining enrollments. The largest employers are the instruments of government welfare services—as well as a couple of new state prisons—and the local hospital network.

The people were friendly and pleasant, yet something did not feel right. I understand the wisdom that “you can never go home” if you expect to find all the same. I expected change. New technologies were present, hand-held electronic devices ubiquitous, a fair number of new cars, if not the foreign luxury models so common in Washington. It was not, though, a happy place of happy people. Why?

It was only near the end of my stay that I recognized the ailment. The region has become a land of small hope, particularly small hope of progress. People there were not living their lives to get ahead, to advance, to build a better future (I cannot recall seeing a single new house in the several days of my visit, though the dump north of town is working on its third mound). Most of the people in these formerly vibrant communities, with what I remember as bright expectations for the future, were now living their lives to get by, just to get by, to get on from day to day, holding on to what they have.

Taxes are high, so it is not easy to keep what you earn. Regulation makes it hard to do anything new. For those reasons, businesses have been leaving, and so have the talented youth. Talk with the people about their daily lives, and not long into the conversation the problems of wrestling with this or that regulation or working with some officious government apparatchik will come up. And yet so many of the people expect the solution to their problems to come from some new government program or service rather than from their own effort.

I say “most” of the people are so ailing. There are a few exceptions, and interesting ones. Two religious groups seem to be growing—and not the establishment churches, whose places of worship, grand and beautiful buildings, eloquently testify to bygone days of prosperity but now show signs of neglect. The two groups are the Latter-day Saints, whose Church was founded in the area nearly two hundred years ago and whose membership is growing steadily, and the Amish/Mennonites, who in recent years have moved in strong numbers to take advantage of neglected farm land. There are also some very prosperous farm businessmen, also gathering up land and putting it into obvious productivity. Finally, I would mention the growth of mini-wineries, although this latter movement seems after about 25 years to be approaching maturity.

Hope is an essential ingredient in happiness. Hope comes from the belief that a desirable future is attainable, so much so that it draws out extra effort to realize its promise. Genuine hope in your own effort can be contagious, and those who have it can help revive communities. You cannot do much to give hope without that personal effort, but hope comes naturally with that effort and the opportunity to keep the fruits of one’s efforts. Our nation’s founders were filled with hope and with it created the greatest nation on earth.

There is no hope, though, in just getting by. In the end, you cannot get by if getting by is all there is to your hope. No future there, only decline. For hundreds of years people have been leaving their lands where they struggled to get by and have been coming to America, to them a land of hope and the freedom that feeds hope. When I leave Washington to look for America, that is what I am looking for. I hope to find it ever.

(First published July 20, 2013)

Of Liberty and Breaking the Rules

Sometime in the 1990s, before the days of YouTube, I received a homemade video from a man who owned and operated a small business near Dallas, Texas. He ran a landscaping company, had a handful of employees, and, according to the video, was in violation of some rule or regulation of the federal government every day. He did not intend to be in violation. He did not want to be in violation. As he explained, it was just impossible to comply with all of the requirements.

The video began with the owner sitting behind his desk, explaining the problem. He stood up and took the camera with him as he walked through different parts of his operations, pointing out what was required of him, his business, and his colleagues.

In the main office he described the employment rules, the tax laws, the related mandates and regulations that applied because he had hired other people. He walked over to the equipment and described the numberless “safety hazard” regulations, from warning notices that had to be glued beneath the seats of garden tractors, to how he and his workers used, carried, and stored their tools, gear, and machines, and what they were supposed to wear while using them. He discussed the multitude of formal requirements for managing and applying the fertilizers, pesticides, and other chemicals that are commonly used in his business, including their handling, storage, clean up, and their transportation. Speaking of transportation, because his company used trucks and other vehicles, there was another long list of rules and regulations that applied to that part of the firm.

Added to all of this, there were numerous reports, applications, notices, and other papers to be filed with a variety of agencies on a regular basis. When he was through, he sat down again behind his desk and said, “I break the law every day. I don’t intend to, but I cannot avoid it. I can’t keep up with it all as long as I stay in business.”

How did we get here? Is this America? Is this the land of the free and the home of the brave? Is this a land of freedom sustained by law? It is an unknown America, too unknown to most but too familiar to people who run a business, especially the people who own a small company. The rest of us see little of it, though perhaps we suspect it is there. Some of us catch glimpses.

In a large business it takes longer for the regulatory burden to become overwhelming. For a while the boss can hire more people to help carry the load. In the large firms of America there is a host of employees who produce no goods or offer any services to any customers. They spend their careers complying with their slices of these federal rules, laws, and mandates so that some of the other employees can be involved in what the business is all about, providing something to a customer for which the customer is willing to pay.

The customer may not realize that a large share of what he pays for he never receives; it goes to pay those people who work to keep the business in compliance with the government rules. More than businessmen would be wealthier without this heavy, dead hand clamped on firms, factories, and farms. The necessities and luxuries of life would all be a lot cheaper. Or, another way to say it, we would get more of the goods and services we pay for, less of our money sunk into these hidden costs for unproductive activity.

America’s Founders sought to create a land of freedom, not dominated by government and the officiousness of government functionaries. To them “unregulated” was a goal, not a criticism. They also knew the danger of what could happen, even in America. James Madison wrote, “It will be of little avail to the people that the laws are made by men of their own choice, if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood. . .” (James Madison, Federalist no. 62)

And yet here we are. What the Texas businessman faced in the 1990s has not become any lighter since. When was the last time that you read the full text of a law? Who has read the Obamacare statute, the Dodd-Frank Act, or any of the other voluminous, incoherent laws recently enacted, each written on more than a thousand pages? For each page of law enacted by Congress today government bureaucrats write ten pages of rules and regulations, all of which are enforced as law though never voted on by anyone who himself has been voted into office by the people.

In the land of the free, whose founding document begins with “We the People”, why do we tolerate it? One of the complaints against the king of England in the Declaration of Independence reads, “He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people, and eat out their substance.” And yet we have done the same to ourselves. The Dodd-Frank Act alone created several New Offices and has already stimulated the hiring of more than a thousand new officers.

“I wear the chain I forged in life,” replied the Ghost. “I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it. Is its pattern strange to you?”

Scrooge trembled more and more.

“Or would you know,” pursued the Ghost, “the weight and length of the strong coil you bear yourself? It was full as heavy and as long as this, seven Christmas Eves ago. You have laboured on it, since. It is a ponderous chain!”
(Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol)

There was a time when the chains had to be broken to restore the rule of law.

(First published August 8, 2013)

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