SACRAMENTO – The United States and California in particular are continuing down a dangerous path where more decisions about almost everything in life are made by government officials rather than by individual citizens. That's a fancy way of saying that we are losing our freedoms, slowly but surely. Maybe it's not so slowly, but it is surely, and the intrusions are coming at every level of government.
The Christmas season is a great time to focus on enduring things, even if reality isn't always pleasant. As I assess the past year and look toward the new one, I'm left with the sad conclusion that, regardless of who wins the presidency, nothing of substance will change on the freedom front. Here are my mostly dour predictions, offered with the hope that I end up being wrong:
Economic rebound will delay reform: Even a hampered market economy is wonderfully resilient, and we're seeing signs that the economy is improving a bit. That's good for obvious reasons, but bad also. When things go well financially, the public will be happy and governments will have more money. All the worry about debt bubbles, incompetent government and pension costs will subside. Governments only reform things when they have no other choice. An improving economy gives them other choices.
Republicans will chase away small-government voters: The GOP has never been a particularly good vehicle to stand up against government encroachment, but it has often gotten some of the rhetoric right. But a contentious presidential race is bringing out the big conservative guns against small-l libertarian candidate Ron Paul, who is the only consistent pro-freedom voice in the crowd (whatever his other flaws, and long-shot status). A great example: "Mainstream" critics recently have mocked Paul's crusade against laws that ban the selling of raw milk. They say this is such a small issue, and his emphasis on it portrays his "crazy uncle" weirdness. But the smallness of the matter is the issue. If Americans cannot sell raw milk to willing buyers without risking a SWAT-team raid, then what area of life is left to individual choice? The GOP doesn't really get this point and as a result will fail to deliver a compelling enough message to defeat Obama, especially if my economic-rebound prediction comes true.
Freedom won't make the national agenda. I'm not exactly going out on a limb here. Americans love to wave the flag and boast about their freedoms, but until they ask themselves some tough questions, it's likely that more freedoms will evaporate. Already, most Americans hand over about half their income to government. Just for fun, try to name a few areas of life that aren't taxed or regulated by the government. The government can take away your children based merely on assertions of abuse, or take your property and give it to a developer. You cannot build anything or remodel anything in your home, start a business, hire someone, drive anywhere, buy a firearm, make a political donation or do much of anything without being subject to myriad rules, regulations, taxes, fees, inspections, permits. There's no danger of this scenario getting better. Unfortunately, as the federal government plays an even bigger role in the business of health care, we will see more – not fewer – examples of bureaucrats meddling into the most personal areas of our lives.
War on Terror will drone on. Despite the welcome return of troops from Iraq, the United States will soon find new places to dispatch those troops. Leaders of both parties are ratcheting up the anti-Iran rhetoric, so the U.S. is not about to reduce its presence in the Middle East or reduce its absurdly high level of military spending. Domestic government grows during wartime, and this open-ended war on terror will provide endless justification for government snooping at home. NPR recently reported, for instance, of expanded use of government drones for law enforcement purposes at home. (At least we won't need to watch any more dystopian movies.)
Civil libertarians will wander in the wilderness. Republican rhetoric about limited government and family values (Newt Gingrich, for God's sake?) are as empty as Democrats' feigned concerns about civil liberties. The Atlantic's Conor Friedersdorff recently detailed this liberal president's angering of civil libertarians: "He has previously been subject to complaints about his war on whistleblowers, the humanitarian and strategic costs of his drone war, the illegality of the war he waged in Libya, his use of the state secrets privilege, his defense of Bush-era warrantless wiretapping, and his assertion of the power to kill American citizens accused of terrorism. But news that Obama plans to sign rather than veto a bill enshrining indefinite detention into U.S. law and failing to exempt American citizens is provoking unprecedented ire."
Parties will major in the minors. Both parties will continue to mainly argue over "tempest in a teapot" issues, such as whether to pass a tiny payroll tax break that lasts only two months or to do so for somewhat longer, and whether to slightly reduce the growth in federal spending over the next decade or do so ever more slightly. Don't expect real reform or even substantive discussions. That this prediction is such a no-brainer is a reminder of how hopeless things are from a political-reform standpoint.
Expect a full-on California tax push. In California, thanks to redistricting and the continued fleeing of California GOP voters to other states, Democrats will expand their grip on power. They will bury pension reform, ignore the state's dismal business climate and pass hundreds of new regulations. They will soon launch a frontal assault on Prop. 13's tax limitations, given that the majority party has decided that the state government is cut to the bone and there's nothing else to do but raise taxes early and often.
The prognosis isn't good, but there's always time to reverse course. The New Year offers boundless opportunities along with the likely pitfalls.