Guaranteeing a Lack of Opportunity

October 3, 2014

Our constitution, the document on which the nation was founded, exudes opportunity. The founders were wise. Realizing that opportunity would carry the nation further than would implicit guarantees.
Even so, governments have long attempted guarantees.
Take the Soviet Union. It attempted to guarantees wages. Shelter. Food. Healthcare. And pensions. Only to collapse under the weight of its short comings after 69 years.
Then Cuba. Emulating the Soviets. Kind of a socialism mentoring program. They guaranteed a certain standard of living. A standard well below the U.S. poverty line.

On to France. A sophisticated, Western European nation. It had to work!
Having won election in 1981, Francois Mitterrand promised to create full employment and prosperity by nationalizing major segments of industry, imposing heavy taxes on the rich, introducing massive social welfare programs, and stimulating the economy by inflating the currency.
Yet, Mitterrand's attempts to provide guarantees by controlling most market activities led to disaster. France suffered from runaway inflation. Was hobbled by huge budget and balance of trade deficits. Unemployment soared. The currency plunged. As opposed to receiving guarantees, France's voters incurred a massive decline in the general standard of living. One that has plagued them ever since.
You'd think we'd learn.
No way could that happen here. Not in America! Where greatness flow from its role as the land of opportunity. That's our brand. Our identity.
Well, it was.
Opportunity is slowly going the way of the bell bottom. No longer in vogue. The electorate has lost its taste for the commensurate effort required.
Today's electorate prefers the empty comfort of guaranteed outcomes. Hollow gifts involving little effort and bringing minimal satisfaction. Like getting socks for Christmas.
Accordingly, our politicians -- posing as leaders -- are all too willing to make guarantees. It's easier. Opportunities require creative muster. Are born from ideas. Enable track records to be measured. And, more often than not, must be paid for.
Guarantees, on the other hand, are easy. Politicians can promise anything so long as it can be allocated to the balance sheets of future generations. Can't find your dream job? Here's a year's salary to get your life figured out. Need government housing? Toss in a cell phone and cable television. Can't effectively compete against foreign competition? Here's a multi-billion dollar subsidy. Just snuck into the U.S.? Here's some social security income, food stamps, and Medicaid for emergency medical conditions. No worries people, my grand children will cover this!
Opportunity proffers a journey in addition to an outcome. Both of which can be rewarding. Opportunity is open ended. A path to happiness. Success. Occasionally, greatness. Yet, often requires effort.
Guaranteed outcomes, on the other hand, need no effort. Sure, the recipient must ensure the election of the guarantor. Or, on occasion, support the coup d'état by which the guarantor came to power. Yet, after a small outlay of time, the prospective recipient of the guarantee need only sit back and wait. Because, like winter, in-laws, or influenza, the guarantee eventually arrives. Bringing no chance of happiness. No satisfying journey. No satisfaction whatsoever.
The recipient is simply relieved of some menial outlay of time, energy or capital that the he would have had to make in its absence.
But, guarantees have side effects. Disappointment. Pangs of regret. Emptiness. Longing. Oh, and once a guarantee is in place, it is impossible to rescind.
Look at social security. Roosevelt guaranteed income to seniors during the Great Depression so that older Americans might not fall into financial despair. While those senior still employed could confidently retire. Providing more jobs to the young and unemployed. 80 years later, social security is more American than baseball and apple pie. Some seniors don't like baseball. Nor eat pie. Every one receives SSI.
Man's nature is to yearn for more. There was a time when he was willing to work for it. Eventually, however, he began pondering what more could be gained by way of the ballot box. As if politicians were wizards. Capable of magic that could circumscribe natural and scientific law.
Tocqueville fretted over the mob-rule mentality inherent to democracy. How the masses would eventually realize they could vote themselves a dollar earned by the effort of others. So they would no longer elect those promising to lead, but those promising to deliver. Leading to a perpetual cycle whereby the electorate is empowered with every election. Promised whatever it needs to hear. And returned to a state of abject servitude until the next election.
A wise and frugal government, said Thomas Jefferson, "shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government."
Yet, that is not the case.
Politicians no longer run on ideas. Having divined the mettle of their constituents, they talk of leveling the playing field. Taking from one group so as to elevate another. If you bought their rhetoric, you'd believe politicians were miracle workers with infinite budgets.
Perhaps you recall the young lady who, following President Obama's 2008 election, reveled that she would no longer have to pay her mortgage, gas, and monthly utilities? Today finds her chastened and wiser. Realizing that her candidate ran as if he was the Wizard of Oz. She says as much in this video. You can't blame her. Because this is the nature by which elections are won.
At some point in the 20th century, Americans forgot that they already inhabited the Land of Oz. Devoid of wizards. To which immigrants came to build lives for themselves and their families. Where there were no guarantees. But a surplus of opportunities.
My sons will grow up in a more cynical, less hopeful age. They'll know plenty of wizards. And lots of guarantees. Wish I could click my heels and return them to a more idealistic place.
Because eventually, too many guarantees only ensures the eradication of opportunity.

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