When I was in high school in Detroit, I had a job as a biology laboratory assistant. I spent a substantial amount of time in the greenhouse, preparing botany experiments. I had acquired some seeds of an interesting plant and was anxious to use them to produce my own crop of these plants. I planted the seeds in a special container and kept enriching the soil and providing plenty of moisture and sunlight to enhance and accelerate the growth. I was very disappointed with the results and eventually abandoned the project, leaving the seeds in some soil behind the greenhouse to fend for themselves.
To my surprise, one day when I was behind the greenhouse, I discovered that the seeds had not only germinated, but had produced a substantial crop without my help. I realize that no analogy is perfect and that many people will try to discredit the analogy, but in this case, I believe the seed is similar to America when it was a fledgling group of colonies. Many people came to America from other countries because they saw an opportunity to lead the life of their choice without a lot of interference from an overarching governing structure.
Although there has been constant tension between those desiring a strong central government that maintains control and order, and those desiring maximum personal freedom as long as the rights of others are preserved, our country managed to thrive for many decades with an unprecedented level of autonomy for its citizens. People were largely left to their own devices and could experience great financial success or profound failure without the government playing a major role, other than ensuring the rights of the citizens to pursue their dreams.
Government plays a vital role in the smooth functioning of a successful society. In our country, it was intended that the central government would provide such services as policing, military protection, roads, sanitation, public safety and similar things. In recent years, well-meaning government officials from both parties have determined that citizens need to be more closely managed because they are not capable of acting responsibly or planning for the future. Unfortunately, many of our citizens have grown accustomed to having others regulate their lives and devote little personal responsibility for their own well-being and that of their families. In the meantime, the government continues to grow at a rapid pace in order to meet the needs and expectations of the growing dependent class of citizens. This scenario is well-known to historians, who realize that bureaucracy begets more bureaucracy. It is incredibly rare — if not unheard of — for bureaucratic agencies to conclude that they have grown too big and need to be reduced.
It’s not that people who work in the government are bad people, but rather there is a natural tendency for government to grow. Our Founders feared this, and they included measures that we are now ignoring to restrain the growth and power of the central government. Just as I was meddling with the natural growth of those seeds, constant interference in Americans’ business by government stifles economic growth, creativity and entrepreneurship. The early settlers of this country had very limited government support, yet prosperous towns sprang up all over the country. In many cases, entrepreneurs became very wealthy, and that wealth begat wealth and opportunities for others.
Both free enterprise and government want to grow. The free-enterprise system creates wealth and grows the economy, but it is hindered when it is constantly manipulated by government interference and, I dare say, predation. Government growth saps the lifeblood of an expanding economy; namely, money. It is like a spider sucking dry a fly caught in its web, getting ever bigger and requiring more victims to sustain its growth.
If, instead of regulating and taxing to death the engine of growth, our government suddenly decided to leave it alone and allow it to be nourished by free-market forces, like the seed, it would explode with vibrant growth, jobs would return quickly, and to the pleasant surprise of the government, its own coffers would fill, because the tax base would be broadened. As an added bonus, the obligations of the government would lessen because there would be fewer citizens on the dole. This would make it possible to reduce and, eventually, eliminate the national debt. If our government could learn to create a nourishing environment for entrepreneurial endeavors rather than gorging itself on the fruits of their labor, a win-win situation would ensue.
We have strayed far from the idea of independent life and personal responsibility for our populace. Many of our young people cannot even conceive of a world in which personal freedom reigns supreme. This does not mean that we should not try to recapture the spirit of freedom and courage that characterized our rapid ascent to the pinnacle of world power.
We the people must control the government before it attains the size and power that will preclude that possibility. It is time we begin discussing with friends, associates and neighbors our vision for our nation and how to realize it. This is not a Democratic or Republican issue. It is an issue of freedom in America for everyone and our progeny.
Ben S. Carson is professor emeritus of neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins University.