The 1996 Election: A Choice of Visions

The football season and the State of the Union message are behind us. In another few weeks the election of 1996 will be upon us. In these few days of calm before the Iowa caucus, we need to reflect upon the social and political transitions of our times and how they impact the November elections.

We live in a society that is being transformed by forces largely outside of our control. We are caught in a transition from the old industrial, hierarchical, mass production society to the individualism of an Information Age.

Of course, it is not our nation's first transition. Historians tell us that there have been three American Republics. The first stretched from the adoption of the Constitution in 1789 to the Civil War. We might call that the Age of Federalism, a time of decentralized government power with a strong emphasis on individual responsibility.

The Second Republic lasted until the Great Depression of the 1930s. It was a time of growing federal power and involvement in our lives. We might call it the Age of Government Expansion.

The Third Republic was the political, governmental and social transformation created by the New Deal. This one's easy to tag: it was the Age of the Welfare State.

The beginning of the end of the New Deal era came with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. But the actual end of liberalism came 14 years later — after the collapse of communism as an organizing principle of society – when control of the U.S. House of Representatives passed into conservative hands.

In the words of MIT professor Rudi Dornbusch: "Statism has had its time on the stage. Pervasive regulation, public-sector enterprises, a bloated welfare state with crushing tax burdens of those who work – and absurd levels of subsidies for those who don't – have failed as effective alternatives to decentralized decision-making…."

So the election of 1996 is not about Bob Dole or Bill Clinton, the elimination of the Commerce Department, or Haiti, Hooters or hand-gun control. The election of 1996 is about a choice of visions to guide us in the Fourth Republic.

First is the choice between collective and individual decision-making. Will the government make decisions for you, or will you make your own decisions? The resolution of this conflict will determine whether you or the government will invest your retirement savings, whether you or the government will decide which school your child attends, whether you or the government will decide which doctor you see.

The welfare statist says it is better that government make these decisions for us; the advocates of liberty believe we are capable of making them for ourselves.

The second choice is whether equality or freedom will be the core of our vision. The liberal vision worries that if people are allowed to be free, they will become unequal, and that will be unfair. So government must count outcomes by race, hue, gender, age, sexual preference, etc., and then enforce remedial policies to make sure that no group gains relative to any other.

The conservative vision, by contrast, recognizes that whenever equality has been the driving force, freedom has been the first casualty. The advocates of liberty believe the individual should be free to go as far as his or her efforts, talents and energy will allow, regardless of race, color or creed.

Finally, there is the choice of whether the state or the individual should be held responsible for moral conduct and the spiritual dimension of our lives. The liberal vision sees the state as the repository of virtue and therefore responsible for morality. When something goes wrong it is the fault of the state, not the individual, so the state must act. Conversely, the conservative vision sees the individual as responsible for his or her own actions, and the sum of these actions sets society's moral course.

In any transition the challenge for political leaders is not to stop it – they cannot – but to advance a vision for that transformation compatible with our constitutional traditions of liberty, justice, and limited government.

President Clinton's vision reflects the faith in government of the Third Republic. His veto pen has struck down a balanced budget and a reform of welfare as we know it. His top domestic priority is to ensure that the government is "never, ever" shut down again.

But by its very nature an accelerating flow of information is decentralizing, increasing individual power and choices. It will transform not only our lives, but our government as well. The conservative vision, anchored in the liberty established by the Founding Fathers in the First Republic, is the only one compatible with the individualism demanded by an information society.