What Are You Going to Choose, America?

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On 3 November comes one of the more hotly contested US elections in recent times. If the COVID-19 pandemic hadn’t occurred (and the Trump administration didn’t have the opportunity to provide conflicting messaging and advice throughout), I’d wager that the President would be locked in for a second term. Regardless of what happens on Tuesday, though, this is a great opportunity for many Americans to re-learn and reaffirm what the proper role of government ought to be.

The ever-increasing polarization we have seen in the last few decades is a reflection of the ever-growing size and role of the government. The more of the economy – and people’s lives – the government controls, the higher the ‘stakes’ become every four years. That both of the major parties spend so much on their respective campaigns indicates how desperate they are to win – and to control.

In the Heritage Foundation’s 2020 Index of Economic Freedom, the US ranked 17th. In the Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom of the World: Annual Report 2020 the US came in at 6th. While these indices focus only on the data, a given country’s recent history and context can paint a richer picture. While many people from other countries would give anything to live in the US, it is becoming clearer that America has, in some ways, lost sight of those things, those principles, that truly set it apart from other states.

Both Trump and Biden approach problems that they believe afflict America from the prism of, ‘I (and those in my administration) have the answers to your problems, and we’re going to spend more and more to make things better.’ Considerations such as individual liberty and privacy (with the growth of the surveillance state after 9/11), have become mere irritations to politicians – not sacred, as they ought to be.

Whereas in the past a Republican would have pushed back strongly against something like the Affordable Care Act, for example, Trump has said his own healthcare plan would protect people with pre-existing conditions, and would keep the Act’s most popular features. At base, both ‘plans’ accept the central role of government in healthcare. And sure, while one could point out Trump isn’t a ‘real’ Republican, the more fundamental point is that the party itself has moved in the same direction as the Democrats, in the sense that it has become a competition to see who can promise to ‘give’ more to the American voter.

It is a given that Biden and the Democrats would support extensive government support for failed businesses and industries. In 2020, it is projected that federal payments to farmers will hit a record $46 billion.

Both sides regard international trade with suspicion and a view that trade is either win-lose or lose-lose, never win-win. All the ideals of individual and economic freedom that, when actualized, made the US the most economically powerful country on Earth.

But even more than that, the US has for decades stood out as the place where people wanted to live, because in America their fundamental freedoms and agency would be respected to such a considerable extent that very few other countries could match.

Despite cosmetic differences, at the moment, it is merely a matter of degree in how much Trump and Biden want the state to spend. The question is no longer, ‘Should the government be doing x,’ but rather, ‘How far should the government be going to solve x.’ Of course, given the ever-increasing power that comes with being President – and with one’s preferred party being in charge – the probability is high that increasing polarization will remain a fact of life for years to come.

Ayn Rand once said that, “There is a limit to the notion of voting for the lesser of two evils.” Americans know their own context best. And according to their values, they now have to decide whether Trump or Biden are the ‘lesser’ evil. Some will vote for Jo Jorgensen, and a whole range of other candidates besides – one can hope that she gets more votes than expected, and at least causes a few ripples that could become a bigger movement in coming years. But with the power the federal government has, the focus will be on the two main players.

There can never be a ‘perfect’ political candidate. After all, politics has become a game to decide who can allocate ‘society’s’ resources – and most crucially, who deserves which benefits. On the main, politics tends to attract people of dubious moral character. And, in some ways that are even worse, politics attracts people who fervently believe they have the answers for all the problems people face in their lives. They just need that little bit more control to ensure all those problems go away.

In numerous ways, right and left are coming together in their collectivist premises, and an ever-growing desire – nay, belief – that they need to use the levers of government power to push society in the direction they deem best for people. Perhaps a kind of deeper recognition of the proper role of the state can come at some point.

Whether Trump or Biden wins on Tuesday, I hope Americans look further than the next four years, and on the more meaningful work that should be done to restrict the reach of the state over their lives – regardless of whom happens to sit on the ‘throne’ at a given time.

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Chris Hattingh

Chris Hattingh is an Objectivist, and Project Manager at the Free Market Foundation in South Africa. He has a Master of Philosophy from the University of Stellenbosch.