Alan Greenspan recounts in Age of Turbulence that after the Berlin Wall fell, former Soviet leaders and economists queried Western leaders and economists about the drivers of prosperity. Greenspan admits there was little consensus from which to derive advice.
Nevertheless, American political leaders have a myriad of varied historical narratives explaining what led the United States to prosperity.
Mitt Romney argues the "nation was founded on the principle of being a merit society, where education, hard work, risk taking, have lifted the individual, and they have helped lift …the entire nation."
Ron Paul contends individual liberty is what made the country prosperous: I believe our country has been the greatest and most prosperous because we had a better understanding about liberty than any other country."
Rick Santorum agrees that liberty is necessary but believes that it "is only possible if we have strong families and strong marriage." He argues, "what transformed the world in this United States of America was a belief in the family."
President Obama asserts "government investments …have made this country great." Similarly Vice President Joe Biden suggests that "every single great idea that has marked the 21st century, the 20th century, and the 19th century has required government vision and government incentive."
Obama suggests that economic equality is also a necessary precondition, "What drags down our entire economy is the growing gap between the ultra-rich and everyone else".
Professor Elizabeth Warren vociferates the social contract drives prosperity, "there is nobody in this country who got rich on his own…you moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of use paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate…part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that [profit] and pay forward for the next kid who comes along."
Several of these narratives place government at the helm of American success, others place what remains outside of the government domain as the main driver of prosperity. Despite extensive public opinion polling, it remains unclear what the public thinks is responsible for American affluence.
A recent national Rasmussen poll finds that only 27 percent of likely voters think government investments made America great, and 42 percent disagree, yet 32 percent are unsure. Instead 69 percent agree the free enterprise system made America great. Moreover, 50 percent say the society would become less fair if the government got more involved in regulating the economy. Perhaps this is a result of the perception that government contracts tend to be granted based on political connections (66 percent) but private sector negotiations favor those who provide the best service for the best price (51 percent).
Another Rasmussen poll finds that only 18 percent of Americans agree "every great idea in American history required government vision and government incentive." Instead 64 percent disagree government was essential. Moreover, 60 percent agree with the statement "government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem."
Emily Ekins is the director of polling for Reason Foundation where she leads the Reason-Rupe public opinion research project, launched in 2011. Follow her on Twitter @emilyekins.