- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 9, 2009

OPINION/ANALYSIS:

As conservatives and, more importantly, as Americans, we need to get back to understanding that competition is vital for the well-being of our people and our country.

Competition is good. It has been the basis of our American way of life since the beginning. When given the chance to compete, we thrive. Our industries innovate. Job growth is stimulated. Workers save money through lower prices. People have more control over their lives.

Yet today, we are moving in the opposite direction. We are backing away from competition, and in many aspects, our federal government is leading the retreat.

From health care to trade and now even national security, there is an unmistakable trend of government trying to stifle competition in this country. The federal government even tried to use unemployment benefits recently through its “stimulus” plan to force some states such as Alabama to raise taxes under the guise of “modernization” — higher taxes that would damage our state’s competitiveness.

When it comes to health care, there is no question the system is in need of reform. But you don’t fix America’s health care problems with more centralized planning from Washington. A better approach allows for more competition in the marketplace, so consumers have more choices, more information and more control.

Instead of trying to erect protectionist walls around our country, America should embrace the multitude of opportunities that abound in today’s international free-market economy. It is difficult if not impossible to expand the U.S. economy without opening new markets for our exports. Yet this administration and a majority in Congress refuse to take action on free-trade agreements with staunch American allies such as Colombia, Panama and South Korea. It’s curious that a group of politicians who for years preached about the need to “restore” U.S. influence in the world now allow American influence and competitiveness to wither. The European Union and China aren’t making the same mistake. They are leaping into the void left by U.S. leadership on trade.

But of all places, perhaps the one where the trend away from competition is most dangerous is in the area of national security. Today, American men and women who serve in the U.S. Air Force are flying in refueling tankers built when Dwight D. Eisenhower occupied the Oval Office. Replacing this aging fleet has been the Air Force’s top priority for years, but it has become a decade-long odyssey and a political football.

Last year, the Air Force chose the Northrop Grumman-EADS aerial refueling tanker as the best airplane to meet its needs. It was bigger, more capable and less expensive than the plane offered by its competitor. Alabamians are proud the plane would be built in our state because that would create a new aerospace manufacturing corridor throughout the Southeast and ensure more American competition in this industry for decades to come.

But after an open and fair competition, the Air Force’s decision was not allowed to stand. Instead, a new selection process was ordered with vastly different criteria that clearly favor one company over another.

It’s impossible to ignore the fact that these new criteria unexpectedly appeared after the Air Force came under enormous political pressure from some Washington politicians and their allies in organized labor. It’s also impossible to ignore the fact that the new criteria came after Barack Obama admitted he was “biased” in favor of one of the competitors.

That’s not competition. That’s a coronation caused by politics interfering in the selection process. The plane that is best for our war fighters should be selected. Period.

But that won’t happen unless conservatives and others stand up and defend the fundamental principle of competition. Competition should be defended whether the issue is health care, trade or national security.

In Washington, “competition” has become a dirty word. The economic ramifications of this trend are frightening. It is competition that stimulates the economy, stirs our creativity, increases productivity and improves our quality of life. If American politicians don’t once again embrace competition, we’ll all be losers in the end.

• Bob Riley is the Republican governor of Alabama.

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