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No One Is Qualified to be President

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The Democrats’ chief argument against George W. Bush is that he’s not qualified to be president.

They’re right He’s not qualified. But neither is Al Gore. Or Dick Cheney. Or Joseph Lieberman.

No one is qualified to be president. No one.

This is not a statement born of cynicism. It’s cold fact. How could anyone be qualified to direct a $2-trillion-a-year behemoth — also known as the federal government — designed to micromanage the lives of every individual in the United States and quite a few overseas as well? The president of the United States is expected to “steer” the economy. But this grossly misconceives what an economy is. It’s not a ship. “The economy” is a figure of speech. In reality it’s just a bunch of people engaging in production and trade. “Steering” the economy translates into telling people what to do. Aside from the moral issue involved (telling them what to do violates their freedom), no one knows enough to intelligently direct 265 million people’s activities.

Perhaps readers will think the term “central planner” doesn’t apply to the United States, land of free enterprise. Well, what was the case against Microsoft if not an attempt to centrally plan the computer software industry? The government decreed that Web browsers must not be integrated into operating systems. Antitrust chief Joel Klein, bureaucrat, said so. Or how about his decision that MCI WorldCom may not merge with Sprint because a combined company would not conform to his vision of the long-distance industry? The president hires the attorney general, who hires the antitrust chief.

Those are just two examples of how the president and his men deign to plan “the economy” — our lives. The alphabet agencies staffed by the president — EPA, OSHA, FDA, FTC, ad nauseum — exist to enable social engineers to carry out their visions of our futures. Thanks, but I have plans of my own, just as everyone else does.

Al Gore and President Clinton feverishly take credit for the last several years of economic growth. They’d have us believe that their big 1993 tax increase and similar measures are responsible for all the good things we see in the private sector. Clinton-Gore assumed office several months after a mild recession had ended. The budget was deeply in deficit — not because tax cuts reduced revenues in the 1980s (that myth dies hard), but because the government spent well over a buck for every buck that taxpayers were forced to pony up.

How exactly was Clinton’s tax increase going to turn that around? The Clinton-Gore theory is that by showing “fiscal restraint” and attacking the deficit, the administration reassured the financial community, bringing down interest rates and stimulating economic growth. Nice fantasy. Clinton showed no interest in killing the deficit before the Democrats lost control of the Congress in 1995, and then he dragged his feet. He never advocated fiscal restraint: read his state of the Union addresses! Nonmilitary spending has grown dramatically. As the Cato Institute points out, the Republicans were accomplices: the 106th Congress is the biggest-spending Congress since the Jimmy Carter-Tip O’Neill years.

So what accounts for the prosperity? Technological innovations made possible by people like Bill Gates, and corporate innovations made possible by people like Michael Milken. Their accomplishments unleashed the productive efforts of millions of people, which in turn flooded the government coffers with surplus revenues. The tax take is at a record peacetime high. If Clinton and Congress can take credit for anything, it’s for cutting the capital gains tax in 1997.

Far from deserving credit for the prosperity, the Clinton bureaucrats still maintain impediments to productive activity. The president can’t bear the idea of a tax cut that doesn’t compel people to act in prescribed ways, and he’s pushing myriad new spending programs. Gore holds the same philosophy, motivated as he is by his messianic environmentalism and disdain for industry.

Would George W. Bush be much different? Does “prosperity with a purpose” sound like a call for economic freedom to you?

Presidents can do a million things to screw up an economy, but they can do only one thing if they want general prosperity: leave it alone! That’s what they’re qualified for.

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.