Economic Opportunity Needs a Moral Dimension

Every election year we're barraged with rhetoric about "getting the country moving again," "creating jobs, jobs, jobs," and "stimulating the economy."

Politicians love to promise the future and ignore their own handiwork of the past. They typically spend much more time concocting new schemes for intervention than they spend searching for old ones that need to be repealed.

What really deserves our attention are those barriers to economic opportunity erected by government — regulations, taxes, licensure laws, unfunded mandates, building and zoning codes, special privileges for organized labor, subsidies to business, eminent domain abuse, chronic budget deficits that consume needed capital, and an education monopoly that fails to teach children as it vacuums their parents' wallets, just to name a few.

Studies show that excessively restrictive zoning laws, building codes and property taxes constitute the greatest obstacles to affordable housing for the poor. Minimum wage laws, by making it illegal to employ people whose skills are worth less than government decrees, keep hundreds of thousands from getting a start in the job market. Endless regulations designed to curtail entry into markets (often in the guise of "protecting the public") freeze out many a would-be entrepreneur from creating new businesses.

I'm talking about the primary social disease of our age — government beyond its proper bounds, playing Robin Hood, Santa Claus and Mother Hen all at the same time, inflicting real damage to real people who have harmed no one.

What is sorely needed is a recognition of the moral backwardness that so many of these barriers to economic opportunity represent. We must appeal to what most people instinctively know is right, not just what makes the cash register sing. We must learn to speak of the deleterious actions of government in terms of trampled rights, broken dreams and ruined lives.

Sky-high tax burdens in the inner city should be viewed as an affront to every citizen who wants the best for his family, who wants simply a chance to be productive. They should evoke visions of hungry children, of a boarded-up business that was once someone's dream, of homes torn apart because of the breadwinner's inability to pay the bills of irresponsible politicians.

Why are people who work for government known as "public servants" — even when highly paid? Why isn't "public servant" a term reserved for entrepreneurial heroes in the private sector who create jobs, invent machines, cure illnesses, build businesses, serve customers and pay the bills of government with their taxes?

The campaign to enhance our economic opportunities must incorporate a personal, moral dimension at its core. Laws that suffocate enterprising aspirations are more than bad economics. In a free society, they ought to be moral outrages.

Lawrence W. Reed is president emeritus of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy and president of the Foundation for Economic Education.