The Principles of Liberty
By Senator Rand Paul
One of the things I love about speaking with college students is the no-nonsense approach so many take. Your generation can detect falseness and hypocrisy from miles away. You want leaders who will not feed you a line of nonsense or sell you short.
Unfortunately, a lot of nonsense is peddled in Washington. I know—I work there and see it happen daily.
Think about the issues you confront as you look to make your way in the world: a difficult job market paired with debt, in a country where economic security seems like a thing of the past.
Now think about how Washington has responded to these issues. Government spending keeps accelerating. The United States now spends almost a quarter of its gross domestic product (GDP) in Washington, and nearly half of that spending is borrowed. In fact, the federal government borrows $30,000 every second.
How, exactly, is that contributing to economic security—for you, for your parents, or for any other Americans?
Entitlement spending and interest on the debt will consume all tax revenue in the near future. It is not a question of if a debt crisis will occur in America. It is only a question of when. There is no question that this crisis will hit your generation hardest.
Of course, as important as Social Security, jobs, and the economy are, they are hardly our only concerns. The federal government now attempts to micromanage American life at practically every level.
The government tells you what kind of lightbulbs you can buy, what kind of toilet can be in your home, how much water can come out of your showerhead. Privacy is seemingly an antiquated notion, with government snoops able to access third-party records, such as phone records, e-mails, financial records, and pretty much any other personal information they want, without a judge’s warrant.
These are not simply policy problems; they reflect an abandonment of principles. America has drifted away from the constitutional principles of limited government, separation of powers, and individual liberty. The path forward lies in reclaiming the ideas at the heart of America’s Founding: respect for the Constitution and respect for the individual.
“As Government Expands, Liberty Contracts”
To paraphrase President Ronald Reagan, big government is the problem, not the solution.
Unfortunately, when one warns of big government, he or she risks being called an “anarchist” or even a “terrorist” by political opponents. That kind of name-calling does nothing to advance the political discourse, nor does it address the fundamental problems our nation is facing. Such partisan bickering is just one of the many things about Washington that turn off so many young people.
But conservatives can’t simply blame the partisanship of the opposition for the failure to tame the government Leviathan. We need to do a better job of communicating why big government is the problem—why it is bad for the economy, freedom, and a restrained, yet strong, foreign policy.
Unless we can make this case, we’ll always be at a disadvantage in a debate with liberals who want the government to take on an even greater role in American life. That’s because liberal promises seem tangible: the government will launch yet another expensive new spending program to help Americans—by paying for food, day care, preschool, health care, you name it.
Politicians who promote these spending programs don’t acknowledge the unavoidable fact that their initiatives will send America further into debt or force the government to raise taxes, or both.
But conservative solutions are tangible too. We’re not just saying no to more government. Our proposals will lead the way to more prosperity, more stable families, political decisions made at the local level, a dollar that holds up in a global marketplace, an education system that puts students and parents first, a vibrant culture supported by religious institutions, and opportunities for young people like you to grow and lead America into a renewed age of freedom.
In his farewell speech in 1989, President Reagan said, “As government expands, liberty contracts.” He was absolutely right. As government grows, liberty becomes marginalized. The collective takes precedence over the individual—but the great and abiding lesson of American history is that the individual is mightier than any collective.
What our country needs is the kind of system that made America so prosperous, with a limited government that largely does not interfere with individuals and their pursuit of happiness but allows people to be rewarded for their hard work and creativity.
Our political opponents and the media like to portray conservatives as unconcerned about the poor, senior citizens, and minorities. Nothing could be further from the truth. But we need to do a better job of communicating the promise of conservatism, not simply the failures of liberalism. We advocate not for special privileges for “the rich” but rather for a flourishing economy that lifts everyone up, creating millions of jobs and lessening the burden of taxes and government regulation.
We need to shout to anyone who will listen, “More freedom and less government means more jobs, more wealth, and a better life for everyone.” Despite the trillions of taxpayer dollars spent on bailouts and “stimulus” plans over the past several years, the economy hasn’t fully recovered from the Great Recession.
One in six Americans lives in poverty, more than at any other time in the past several decades. This is unacceptable.
For conservatism to grow, we must stand on principle. We must stand for something so powerful and so popular that it brings together people from the left and the right and the middle. We don’t need to dilute what we believe. We need to convince everyone that with the Constitution as our guide, our principles and our policies will provide the greatest good for the most people.
We know these principles and these policies work because our country has tried them before. We don’t need to look too far back into history to see that. Ronald Reagan entered office as the country was in the grips of a brutal recession. He cut taxes and reduced regulations, and the Federal Reserve stopped printing money like mad. Soon the economy took off, creating millions of jobs.
Decentralization of power is the best policy. Government is more efficient, more just, and more personal when it is smaller and more local. By decentralizing government, we strengthen communities, allowing people to depend on and care for one another, rather than on some distant, incompetent bureaucracy masquerading as defender of the common good. This is a message we need to do a better job communicating.
We also need to remind our fellow citizens that balanced budgets and limited government doesn’t mean no government. It means $3.1 trillion worth of government—the amount of revenue the federal government currently brings in, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Americans have had to learn to live within their means. Government should do the same, instead of trying to squeeze even more money out of those who are working.
The government can do a lot with $3.1 trillion, though you wouldn’t know it from the way a lot of politicians (of both parties) talk. Many of them howled about the supposedly draconian “cuts” that went into effect with the budget sequestration in early 2013. But the sequester didn’t cut any from the overall spending; it just slowed the rate of growth. Even with the sequester, government spending will grow by more than $7 trillion over the next decade.
Only in Washington could an increase of $7 trillion in spending over a decade be called a cut.
A Foundation in Principles
To better communicate our message, we must marshal the facts and have a deep understanding of the principles that informed our Founders. Policy battles are important, but if we don’t have a firm grounding in principles, politics becomes sport, with our focus narrowing to follow electoral returns, legislative vote tallies, and other short-term measures.
Without that foundation in principles, we can easily lose sight of our real goal: securing for ourselves and for future generations the freedom and prosperity that have always marked America’s greatness.
As students, you have a great opportunity to immerse yourself in America’s history and the principles of liberty. I am a proud Republican, but I am a conservative first. That is to say, my conservatism has always been more philosophical in nature than partisan. I am a Republican because I believe my party is the best outlet for the defense—and advancement—of the principles of liberty. I encourage you to discover those principles yourself and become an advocate for them.
There is no substitute for studying history. When you look to history, you quickly see that debates about the proper role and scope of government are nothing new. Founders Alexander Hamilton and James Madison fought from the beginning about how the federal government would be limited. Madison, the “father of the Constitution,” was unequivocal: the powers of the federal government are few and defined; the power to tax and spend is restricted by clearly enumerated powers. That is a simple proposition too many Americans forget (or ignore).
I also encourage you to study what great thinkers have had to say about both individual liberty and personal responsibility. In school I read the great nineteenth-century Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky, whose brilliant narratives illustrate the importance of conscience and faith—the belief that if there were no God, everything would be permissible. I also began to read a lot of free-market economists from the Austrian School, including Nobel Prize winner F. A. Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, and Murray Rothbard. With books like Hayek’s Road to Serfdom—a must-read for any conservative—these thinkers show why government intervention never works but in fact prolongs and worsens the problems it is intended to fix.
A debt crisis looms in this country, and Washington politicians are speeding us toward the precipice.
America needs a new generation of leaders to defend the Constitution, defend individual liberty—including our first liberty, religious freedom—and defend the freedom and prosperity that have made our country the beacon of the world.
In the past, leaders like Ronald Reagan have effectively communicated the message of liberty, showing the importance of smaller government that respects freedom yet is strong enough to protect America.
Who will become the next generation of leaders?
I urge you to step up to the challenge—to preserve the American dream for yourself and future generations.
Rand Paul is a U.S. senator from the state of Kentucky.