Richard Epstein on a “Declining United States”

Lynne Kiesling

The Independence Day holiday is a good day to reflect on the values and principles that animated the American Revolution and the origins of the United States. Given the continuing erosion of our civil liberties, including economic liberties, this year that reflection is more important than ever; as I’ve done before I’ll invoke Thomas Jefferson on this subject: “All tyranny needs to gain a foothold is for people of good conscience to remain silent.”

So Richard Epstein’s essay last week about Derek Jeter and a “declining United States” resonated. Epstein argues that at a policy level (and, by implication, culturally as well to some extent) we are exhibiting the indecision, the tweaking, the second-guessing that aging athletes attempt to regain some of their peak capabilities. I don’t necessarily agree with Epstein’s entire argument in this piece, but given how gloomy my outlook has been on this front for the past few years, I want to look for reasons for optimism, and to highlight what I see as Epstein’s salutary vision for a thriving, successful, rejuvenating nation:

The secret of success for those nations that are in their prime is that they do a few tasks confidently and well. They run a strong military to keep peace at home and to help stabilize matters abroad. They worry about the maintenance of a simple tax system with low rates, a system intended to create a certain and friendly environment that maximizes returns to capital and labor. They know the importance of the security of contractual transactions and the dangers that come from erratic efforts to jump-start an economy. They praise their inventors, authors, and innovators. They treat excellence as an imperative. They take care of their unfortunates, but do not easily accept excuses for poor performance.

Remaining true to these guiding principles pays large social dividends. It helps shrink the size of government, and it reduces the level of political intrigue that saps the vitality of a nation with one gimmick after another. … It embodies a quiet efficiency that spurs individual achievement and wealth creation, which in turn sets the stage for a new round of innovation and improvement.

In broad brushstroke, this is a vision worth keeping in mind as we grapple with the policy, Constitutional, and public finance challenges facing us.