2012 GOP platform must aim to restore American innovation

Jobs and work must be at the heart of the Republican platform in 2012, just as they’re at the heart of what makes America exceptional.

After three years of President Obama, we’re in danger of losing these important values. The current economy has been so bad for so long that it is undermining the very fabric of American life. The prolonged economic downturn and destruction of jobs by high taxes, massive over-regulation, and class warfare has forced more and more Americans into dependence on government.

President Obama’s policies, ostensibly solutions to these problems, have in truth focused on making people even more dependent on an even larger government. Under the Obama model, for instance, unemployment benefits and food stamps are satisfactory compensation for the president’s own job-killing policies. Similarly, the president’s health care law is praised for providing young people the chance to remain on their parents’ health insurance until they are 26—a dependency made necessary only by the fact that so many young people are unable to get jobs in the Obama economy.

These changes are in accordance with the left’s vision for America, in which dependence on the government is a legitimate lifestyle—even desirable.

A fundamentally different sense

Conservatives have a fundamentally different sense of the importance of independence, work, and jobs. It is up to us point out these moral and cultural failures of the left, and to respond with a platform for a dynamic, job creating, and prosperous economy. As conservatives, we believe a free society must be built on self-reliant individuals and their families, working together in a free economy. The centrality of work to that vision is one of the values that has always defined Americans.

At the very beginning, in 1608 at the Jamestown colony, aristocrats told their leader, Captain John Smith, that their contract provided for maintenance without effort. They argued their payment to come to the New World exempted them from any work requirement.

Faced with this legal argument, Captain Smith resorted to first principles and objective reality. In effect he told them there were too few resources to have freeloaders. He warned, “If you don’t work, you don’t eat.” In asserting this principle of the necessity of work, John Smith cited Biblical precedent—specifically, a letter from Paul, Silas, and Timothy (Second Thessalonians 3:10) in which they assert, “If a man will not work, he shall not eat.”

More than 250 years later, this centrality of effort in a free society was captured in our Declaration of Independence when the founding fathers wrote that “we are endowed by our Creator” with “the right to pursue happiness.”

They did not suggest that we had a guarantee of happiness.

They did not suggest that there should be an equal distribution of happiness.

They did not propose a new right to be happy.

They suggested Americans had a right to “pursue” the possibility of happiness.

It is this connection of big dreams with hard work that has made the American experience unique. Here, everyone has a chance. Everyone can dream of being a first generation millionaire, a movie star, a president.

Strong work ethic

As conservatives, we want every American make the best of their God-given rights to pursue happiness. The pursuit of happiness requires a strong work ethic. A strong work ethic requires work.

Work is one of the most important components of the liberty we enjoy in America. With a job comes a paycheck. With a paycheck comes the freedom to make moral choices about what to buy, what to save, and what kind of lifestyle to follow. Those are big choices, and it’s the job that makes them possible.

Without them—with an unemployed, passive, dependent America—we are inherently less free. The fact is a person who is working has far more control over their life and their choices than someone who is unemployed, relying on food stamps and maybe living in public housing.

Dependence is destructive

This is why the very basic framework of a healthy society relies on work and jobs. And conservatives understand that this means jobs are not merely an economic issue, but also a social issue and a key building block of the American constitutional experience.

We want strong families in America. They’re a central pillar of our society. But for families to remain strong, for people to be able take care of their families and themselves, they have to have jobs. Families require incomes to be stable. Today, economic stress is a major factor in all too many marriages.

And if we want strong families, our policies have to favor a full employment society. President Reagan saw this clearly, and asserted over and over “the best social program is a job.” Because when families have solid incomes they can plan for the future and sustain the present.

The conservative belief in the power of work and independence to liberate people was at the heart of the 1996 welfare reform. By then, Americans had reached the conclusion that giving people money to do nothing was actually destructive.

The long debate had begun 30 years earlier, in 1966, when Ronald Reagan—then a candidate for governor—proposed dramatic reform in the very principle of welfare. Later, Charles Murray’s brilliant book “Losing Ground” proved that dependence was destructive.

Marvin Olasky’s insightful “The Tragedy of American Compassion” outlined with compelling clarity that 19th century reformers would have been appalled and dismayed by the modern welfare state. The genuine reformers who devoted their lives to saving the poor had hated rich people who visited the slums to give unearned money to the poor. In the reformers’ analysis, unearned money simply increased dependency, weakened personal initiative and subsidized addiction.

In effect, the welfare state had systematized and vastly expanded the redistribution of wealth to the poor. And that transfer had led to precisely the dependency on government and the decay of moral fiber the 19th century reformers would have predicted.

So in 1996, welfare reforms shifted the system from teaching dependence to teaching self-reliance. It shifted from subsidizing indolence to rewarding effort.

When two out of every three people on welfare left for a job or training, it was clear the new conservative reform was working. But the entire focus of the welfare reform program was to allow people to succeed for themselves in a full employment economy. Government is just as destructive when its job-killing policies make it impossible for people to get jobs.

Conservatives promise a future of lower taxes, more innovation, and full employment, in which you can have a job so you can provide for your family and for civil society.

President Obama believes this vision—one the founding fathers’ shared with us—is obsolete. He instead promises a future in which government will take from someone else to give to you. He believes his borrowed vision of massive government financed with massive debt and punishing the successful by taking their money to “redistribute” it is the wave of the future.

But Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s classic critique of socialism—“You run out of other people’s money to spend”—gets to the heart of why the president’s policies will inevitably fail. His model is a tsunami of debt, bureaucracy, corruption, and incompetence doomed to crash.

These are the sharp moral and practical distinctions the Republican platform must draw out. The choice between an America of work and independence and an America of unemployment and dependence is the defining fight of our time.

It is politically, historically, and morally the right centerpiece for the 2012 election.