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Beware of Whither We Are Tending

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"If we could first know where we are, and whither we are tending," Abraham Lincoln once said, "we could then better judge what to do, and how to do it."

Every knowledgeable American is aware of where we are as a country, but not all Americans are aware of whither we have been tending. Alexis de Tocqueville sums it up quite adequately when he cautions us against the soft despotism of the democratic state. In his seminal work, Democracy in America, Tocqueville describes soft despotism as the imperceptible exercise of absolute power by a democratic government. Though comparable to despotism in the formal sense of the word, soft despotism deceives us into believing that we are truly independent, when in fact the government has the ability to control every aspect of our lives. "Such a power," writes Tocqueville, "compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people," till each nation is "reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd."

Unfortunately, we are naively living under a soft despotism -- thereby rendering ourselves "timid and industrious animals" to the "shepherd" that is our federal government. Since some Americans are not unaware of whither we are tending, we are unable, as a nation, to judge what to do and how to do it, as Lincoln once indicated.

Educating the American people about whither we are tending is a great opportunity for the conservative movement. Though we have begun to identify the adverse effects of our overarching government, we must better show our fellow Americans how such a government can personally affect them not only in theoretical terms, but in concrete terms as well.

The "shepherd" government under which we live today is unaffordable, inefficient, obstructive to freedom, and damaging to economic prosperity.

The way our government currently functions is unaffordable for a variety of reasons. In 1913, after the enactment of the 16th amendment, government spending accounted for 8 percent of the GDP. Thirty years later, that number jumped to 15 percent. In 2010, government spending made up 36 percent of our GDP and, according to the Congressional Budget Office, will make up 50 percent of our GDP by 2038. Additionally, our federal debt is expected to exceed $26 trillion by the end of 2023. Include various entitlements, and our debt will exceed anywhere between $79 trillion and $129 trillion. In order to pay for future federal spending while maintaining the current debt, our government will have to raise maximum corporate tax rates from 35 percent to 88 percent, while raising income tax rates from 25 percent to 63 percent for middle-class Americans and 10 percent to 25 percent for lower-class Americans, as well.

Not only is our government unaffordable, but it is inefficient as well. Taxpayers are paying nearly $1 trillion annually for over 126 federal antipoverty programs, despite the fact that national poverty levels have remained stagnant for many years. We spend more than any other country on education even though we are ranked 9th and 10th in science and math examination scores worldwide. Despite numerous regulations and increased government stimulus spending, only 88,000 jobs were created this past month -- a number less than half of what was expected. The more government exceeds its boundaries, the less efficient it is in addressing the needs of the people. In fact, government intervention impedes upon the private assistance provided by society, which is, in most cases, much more efficient than the assistance provided by the government.

Additionally, our government is obstructing our freedoms in a variety of ways. Every dollar that the government takes from the taxpayer is one less dollar that the taxpayer can use for his own expenditures. When government forces us to save up for retirement, regulates our diet, or recommends for us to purchase a certain health insurance premium, it is effectively conforming us to a standard and thereby depriving us of the free-will necessary to make our own decisions. We must believe in the liberty of the individual to make mistakes and to learn from his or her mistakes. A government that deprives us of this ability to make mistakes is a government that deprives us of the freedom upon which this nation was founded.

Government spending is furthermore damaging to economic prosperity. As observed by many economists, government spending is inversely related to economic growth. In fact, there is a significant negative relationship between GDP growth and the increase in government share of the GDP. Federal spending undercuts economic growth because it diminishes private-sector activity. Whether it is financed through taxation or borrowing, federal spending inflicts significant extraction and displacement costs on the citizenry. In actually, the Keynesian notion that government spending is economically stimulating is misguided, for every dollar that the government puts into the economy is a dollar that is first taxed or borrowed out of the economy. Rather than creating new opportunities for the people to spend their money, the government is merely altering who it is that is purchasing products. Our "shepherd" government should take note of nations like Ireland, Slovakia, and New Zealand -- all of whom enhanced their economies by decreasing government spending.

Thus, we are living under a government the likes of which Abraham Lincoln and Alexis de Tocqueville warned us about -- a government that is increasing in scope and size, thereby restricting the very freedoms that distinguish our nation from any other. Our current policy of federal spending is not only unaffordable, but it is inefficient, restrictive, and detrimental to the very economy we are trying to stimulate. Regardless, not all Americans are aware of this fact. It is up to us, conservatives, to inform our fellow citizens about our unjustifiable system of spending as well as the burden it places on future generations. When all of us are aware of the effects of this "shepherd" government -- when all of us are aware of whither we are tending -- we, as a nation, will better be able to judge what it is we ought to do and how we ought to go about doing it. Only then will we ensure the efficient management of a sustainable government that will be there for our children and grandchildren in the future.

Mousa Alshanteer is a freshman, and Doris Stroupe Slane Trinity Scholar, at Duke University. Feel free to contact him with any questions, comments, or concerns at