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The Great Works at the Acton Institute Open House

Tuesday, Nov. 30 - 4pm to 8pm

You’ve taken a very principled approach in working for smaller government, lower taxes, individual liberty, and, for fostering a culture of personal responsibility. Those principles are taking a battering in Washington today. Can anything turn the tide?

George Washington and his fairly battered band of patriots were facing far greater odds. The situation looked much more bleak. And yet they were resolved to creating the perfect union that they believed in. And they ultimately prevailed against incredibly long odds. So I think the answer rests in that silent and sleeping majority—really making their voice heard. Not just for an election or election cycle but on a prolonged basis. And that’s what it will take to turn the tide. Really, that is the only thing that can turn the tide. However, if the status quo remains, we’re going to have profound problems coming our way that I think signal, frankly, the undoing of our Republic.

A lot of the debate in Washington over various bailouts and stimulus packages focuses on how to carve up the pie. But shouldn’t we first be talking about bigger issues like what this tremendous expansion of government will mean for America’s future?

The answer is yes at several different levels. The first level is that we are undoing the ultimate in economic stimulus—the free market. The real driver of our economy is not our public works projects or government programs, the real driver of our economy is, to date, a free market based system that spurs on that young entrepreneur in the basement who’s created the product of tomorrow, or that middle-ager working in the diner around the corner. All of those things that make up Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand are the real stimulus of our economy: the people that get up for work; those who are creating the products of tomorrow. We need to talk about how this money doesn’t come out of the sky. If you borrow it, and you have ever larger sectors of the economy driven by the public sector rather than civil society, we will have big problems coming our way. The other point is you can only borrow so much at the individual level, the corporate level, and even at a governmental level before the chickens come home to roost. And I think if we’re not at, we’re very near, the tipping point where we begin to undermine the value of every dollar that’s held by Americans. We can suffer a dollar crash even now. We could suffer under a crippling load of debt that our kids and grandkids would have to deal with. So I just think that, yeah, there’s some much bigger issues besides the immediacy of the economy that go to the long term again viability of our Republic.

A lot of state governors are lining up for federal bailout money. Won’t this simply postpone the day of reckoning that some states need to face because of their own policies?

The answer is yes. That which is unsustainable is going to end. And so for in stance California government grew by 95 percent over the last ten years. Federal government grew by about 73 percent. So you have state government that has grown at an even faster rate than the federal government. You have a state government that has gone out and issued long-term debt to cover the actual operations of government over the last couple years. It’s not sustainable. The idea is that you can just throw some federal money in to that unsustainable mix. But all you do is delay big structural reforms that are absolutely essential to California, for instance, being on firm financial foot ing. And this notion of mandating over a bad situation ultimately generally makes the situation worse. So, yeah, I do think it postpones the day of reckoning. And frankly makes the day of reckoning worse.

The line of business people asking for government bailout help seems to get longer by the day, how can you say no when jobs may be on the line?

The role of government is to promote, in my view, individual freedom. In other words, we have a governmental apparatus that is legitimate in nature in as much as it is to maximize one’s individual free dom. There are other folks who believe in the idea of a nanny state, and believe government is there to take care of your different needs, cradle-to-grave, chief among them being employment. Rather, government is there to create a foundation by which private sector can grow and create employment opportunities. Its job is not to create employment itself as I see it. And so I would say, yes, they’re lining up. There’s an article in today’s paper about car rental companies now lining up for a piece of the bailout funding. There was another article I saw where credit unions were getting money they’ve never gotten before. So, yes, there’s going to be an endless list. And it is again going to get to the point of the absurd before this thing is over and done. And the fact that the list is growing longer shows what a fallacy it is to think that government can change economic laws.

We seem to have lost sight of the virtue of self-restraint.

The bottom line here is that as a country, as businesses, as individuals, we got way ahead of ourselves in spending. Debt has gone three times GDP in the world in the last fifteen years. We’ve been on a spending binge. And if you get ahead of yourself with regard to spending, you’re going to have to deal with the other side of the binge. And no government program, no government bailout, no government stimulus is going to prevent you from that economic reality. Reality is always reality. And so what we need to do is make sure we get back to the firm footing and then let the markets begin to rebuild. You can’t stop—you may try—what’s unfolding. That’s just because we loaded up too much debt. And if you’re over-leveraged, you have got to get back to that point where you’re at a sustainable rate of leverage and we’re not there yet.

You’ve also said that the Obama victory was not a repudiation of conservative principles but a rejection of Republicans who failed to live up to them. Do you see any sign that conservatives are ready to repudiate the culture of corruption we’ve witnessed in Washington in recent years?

I don’t think they are there yet. The good news is you do self-assessment. You do review. You look hard at yourself when you’ve failed. There’s not a lot of self-analysis that often times goes with victory. But there’s a whole lot of self-analysis that goes on when things haven’t gone so well. So I would say time will tell. But I don’t think they’re there yet.

We read in Proverbs, “Where there is no vision, the people perish. But he that keeps the law, happy is he.“ What new vision grounded in either principle or moral law should conservatives be offering America right now?

I would say that we got to go back to the basics. And the vision would be for a prosperous, competitive America in what has become a very, very competitive global world. It needs to be based on an advance and adherence to free market capitalistic principles, and on maximizing the sphere of individual freedom. I suspect there’s a moral component or faith-based component to all that as well. But that’s probably more the role of the church than it is something the government can do directly. Sir Alex Francis Taylor studied history for all of his life. When he came to the end of his life, the quote attributed to him was that a democracy can not exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until voters discover that they can vote for them selves largess of the public treasury with a result that democracy always fails under loose fiscal policy and is generally followed by dictatorship. The average age of the world’s great civilizations has been 200 years for a nation to progress to a sequence from bondage to spiritual faith, spiritual faith to great courage, great courage to liberty, liberty to abundance, abundance to selfishness, selfishness to complacency, complacency to apathy, apathy to dependence. And from dependence back again into bond age. And so what I’m saying is some of what’s going on here is probably a reflection of where we are as a people. And so the vision we need is about going back to the principles that made this country great, those things that Taylor talks about starting this timeline of spiritual faith and great courage, liberty, and how that leads to abundance. You have got to go back to the original three I think to re ally see the kind of renewing in America that a lot of people are thirsting for.

The religious views of candidates and their support among various faith traditions played a big role in the 2008 presidential race. Is this a good thing?

It is. But I don’t know if it was more window dressing than not. Obama had Rick Warren speak at the inauguration, and then got some guy of another persuasion to give the benediction. I don’t think you want it as an accoutrement. I think that you want it to show up in policy. In other words, conversation is certainly an important starting point. It can’t be the ending point.

When it’s convenient, many politicians say they can’t bring their own religious views to bear on important issues because they represent all the people. What’s your view?

I don’t agree with that. What people are sick of is that no one will make a stand. The bottom line in politics is, I think, at the end of the day to be effective in standing for both the convictions that drove you into office and the principles that you outlined in running. And that is not restrained to simply the world of Caesar, it applies to what you think is right and wrong and every thing in between. Now we all get nervous about the people who simply wear it on their arm sleeve to sort of prove that they’ve got that merit badge. But I think the Bible says, “Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father that’s in heaven.“ Hopefully, by the way in which you act. The way in which you make decisions. They’re going to see that some thing’s there. I would also say the Bible says in Revelation, “Be hot. Be cold. But don’t be lukewarm“ [Rev. 3:15]. And there’s too many political candidates who walk around completely in the middle—completely in neutral. With regard not only to faith, but with regard to policy. And that’s what people are sick of. Everything’s gotten so watered down. So I have people come to me frequently saying, “Look, I voted for you. In fact, I completely disagree with you on these different stands over here. But at least I know where you stand.“ And so I would say it’s a mistake to confine one’s belief to only matters of government. If you have a religious view, it’s incumbent upon you and it’s real to have that. The Bible talks about the fruit of the spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, self-control. There ought to be certain things that are clearly observable by your actions. I remember when I first gave a Christmas address, a candle lighting event on the state house capitol. And people were freaking because they said, “You can’t say Jesus.“ I said, “Look, I’m not trying to offend anybody. But if that’s my personal faith, I can say what I want to say. I’m going to say what I want to say.“ I’m not going to be rubbing anybody’s face in it. But I say you can’t dance around that which you really believe. And so I’d say we need people who are more bold in taking stands on all kinds of different things.


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Ray Nothstine is editor of the Civitas Institute in Raleigh, North Carolina