When most Americans hear the word comeback, they immediately think of sports. Whether it is football, basketball, golf, baseball, boxing, or hockey — Americans love a comeback. Like in 2019, when Tiger Woods won the Masters — his first Majors win in 11 years. Like in 2016, when the Chicago Cubs finished the regular season with the best record in baseball (103–58), and then came back from a 3–1 deficit to win the World Series — for the first time in 108 years. Like in 2017, when the New England Patriots overcame a 25-point deficit to win the Super Bowl by six points. Or like in 2016, when the Cleveland Cavaliers overcame — for the first time in league history — a 3–1 deficit in the NBA Finals to defeat the defending champions, the Golden State Warriors, in game seven.
Another common comeback is a political comeback. Mark Sanford, a Republican House member from South Carolina from 1995 to 2001, served as that state’s governor from 2003 to 2011. In 2009, he led the public and even his staff to believe that he was going to spend a week hiking the Appalachian Trail, but actually went to Argentina to visit his mistress. But just when everyone thought his political career was over, he was reelected to his old House seat in 2013.
Democrat Marion Barry (1936–2014) was the mayor of the District of Columbia from 1979 to 1991. In 1990, he was arrested for smoking crack cocaine and then spent time in prison. Yet, after his release, he made a remarkable comeback and was elected mayor again, serving from 2005 to 2014.
Perhaps the most famous political comeback of all is the case of Richard Nixon (1913–1994). After serving for eight years as vice president under Dwight Eisenhower (1890–1969), he lost the presidential election in 1960 and then the California governor’s race in 1962. Everyone thought Nixon was finished politically. But then, in 1968, he won the presidency with 301 electoral votes, and then won 49 states in the 1972 presidential election.
But it is not just in sports or politics where we see comebacks. Countries can have comebacks, too. Germany and Japan emerged from World War II as defeated and devastated countries with millions dead and their major cities in ruins. Yet, they became economic powerhouses. Luxembourg was once a poor agricultural country, but it became one of the leading steel producers in Europe, and is today one of the richest countries in the world. In 1994, more than 800,000 people were killed and millions displaced in the African country of Rwanda. But now, in the twenty-first century, Rwanda is viewed as economically vibrant and an emerging tech hub for Africa.
But what of the United States? Does America need a comeback? Can America make a comeback? How can America make a comeback?
On November 15, speaking before a backdrop of large American flags at his Mar-a-Lago estate, and behind a podium containing the words “Make America Great Again! 2024,” former president Donald Trump officially announced that he was seeking the Republican nomination for the presidency in 2024. “America’s comeback starts right now,” is how he began his speech. “In order to make America great and glorious again, tonight I am announcing my candidacy for president of the United States,” said Trump. He then promised to, if elected, “make America powerful again,” “make America wealthy again,” “make America strong again,” “make America proud again,” “make America safe again,” “make America glorious again,” and “make America great again.”
A simple comparison between America of the twentieth-first century and America between the Civil War and World War I shows us that America not only needs a comeback, it has needed a comeback for a very long time. Practically the whole of the twentieth century needs to be repealed.
It should first be said that the United States has never in its history been a perfect county, a utopia, a paradise, heaven on earth, a glorious civilization, a shining city on a hill, or an absolutely free, just, and equitable society. Individual liberty, human rights, property rights, equality under the law, freedom of speech, and economic freedom have always been violated and restricted to some degree, and more so for certain groups of people. Such is the nature of government.
As former Foundation for Economic Education president Richard Ebeling has so profoundly described government: “There has been no greater threat to life, liberty, and property throughout the ages than government. Even the most violent and brutal private individuals have been able to inflict only a mere fraction of the harm and destruction that have been caused by the use of power by political authorities.” And as Judge Andrew Napolitano puts it: “Government is the negation of liberty.” The U.S. government is no exception, but compared to twenty-first century America, or other countries now or at that time, America between the Civil War and World War I was about as close to a libertarian society as can be imagined.
Just consider for a moment how the federal government relates to the following issues now and back then.
The drug war. Although medical marijuana has been legalized in 37 states and recreational marijuana has been legalized in 21 states (with many rules, regulations, and restrictions), marijuana is still illegal on the federal level. Under federal law, the possession of even a small amount of marijuana can result in fines and imprisonment. And of course, things are much worse when it comes to other drugs. Thousands of Americans languish in jails and prisons solely for the “crime” of buying, selling, using, or possessing a substance that the government doesn’t approve of.
Yet, there was a time in America when no drugs were illegal. There was no drug war to destroy financial privacy, infringe on individual liberty and private property, corrupt law enforcement, unnecessarily swell prison populations, and make criminals out of otherwise law-abiding Americans.
Welfare. The United States currently has about 80 means-tested welfare programs that provide cash, food, housing, utility subsidies, medical care, and social services to poor, disabled, and lower-income Americans on the basis of the beneficiary’s income or assets. There are also other welfare programs that are not means-tested, such as Unemployment Compensation, that pay people for not working, and refundable tax credits, which give people “refunds” of tax money that they never paid in.
Yet, there was a time in America when all charity was private and voluntary. There were no food stamps; no Women, Infants, and Children (WIC); no Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF); no Head Start; no Healthy Start; no Supplemental Security Income (SSI); no school breakfast and lunch programs; and no Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). No American had his income transferred to any other American.
Foreign aid. The United States gives some form of foreign aid to over 190 countries through the work of over 20 government agencies, mainly via the U.S. Agency for International Development. The amount of the aid pledged is about $40 billion a year. No American has any say in how much foreign aid is given and to which countries it is given. Money is just confiscated from American taxpayers and sent to countries that many Americans couldn’t locate on a map and may have never even heard of.
Yet, there was a time in America when the federal government didn’t take one dime from a single American and send it to another country. Any American that wanted to fix some problem or meet some need in another country was expected to do so on his own dime.
Discrimination. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) enforces federal laws that make it illegal “to discriminate against a job applicant or an employee on the basis of race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy and related conditions, gender identity, and sexual orientation), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information.”
Yet, there was a time in America when businesses could hire or hire whomever they chose to and discriminate for any reason and on any basis. No one thought he had a right to any particular job.
Income tax. The first income tax was a 1 percent tax only on taxable income above $3,000, followed by a series of surcharges of up to 6 percent applied to higher incomes. The current version of the income tax is quite progressive, with seven brackets ranging from 10 to 37 percent. The “rich” are also punished through the phase-out of tax exemptions, deductions, and credits as their income rises.
Although it might seem hard to believe, there was a time in this country when there was no income tax. No one was punished for being successful. Everyone kept the fruit of his labor. There was no dread of April 15. There was no fear of being audited. Business decisions were not made on the basis of tax consequences.
Social Security. Social Security provides monthly benefits for retirement, disability, survivorship, and death. It is ostensibly funded by a mandatory 12.4 percent payroll tax (half paid by the employer and half by the employee) on income up to a certain level. Benefits are not means-tested.
Yet, there was a time in America when there was no such thing as Social Security. Workers were responsible for their own retirement savings. There were no payroll deductions by the federal government. Businesses were not required to contribute their share to their employees’ retirement. There was no such thing as a retirement age. And most importantly, money was not taken from those who worked and given to those who didn’t.
Education. Every state has a K-12 public school system and mandatory attendance laws, plus taxpayer-subsidized colleges and universities. This is all overseen by a federal bureaucracy that touches every aspect of education.
Yet, there was a time in this country when the federal government had nothing to do with education and the states had very little to do with local education.
Health care. Half of all Americans receive some form of government health care. There is Medicare for senior citizens, Medicaid for the poor, ObamaCare for low-income citizens, and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) for children. The government subsidizes and regulates health care and health insurance, which tremendously distorts the health care and health insurance markets.
Yet, there was a time in America when the government didn’t have anything to do with health care or health insurance. There was no Department of Health and Human Services. There was no Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. No American was forced to purchase medical insurance. No American was forced to pay for the health care of any other American. And doctors made house calls.
The national security state. Americans think they live in the land of the free, but they actually live in a police state. The government listens to our phone calls, reads our emails, tracks our movements, scrutinizes our purchases, monitors our bank deposits, and peers through the walls of our homes. The TSA treats the traveling public as potential terrorists. The CIA engages in torture and regime change around the world in the name of “national security.” In the name of “public health,” the government claims the power to shut down business and lockdown people in their homes. Local police have been militarized with surplus military equipment. Civil-asset-forfeiture laws confiscate Americans’ money under false pretenses. Drivers in southwest border states may encounter domestic immigration checkpoints miles from the border.
Yet, there was a time in America when there were no national security agencies. Personal and financial privacy did exist. As long as you weren’t engaged in criminal activity, the government basically left you alone. People could travel freely.
Foreign wars. After a brief respite between the two world wars, the United States engaged continually in foreign wars and military operations. The U.S. military is now engaged in much more offense than defense. There are hundreds of American overseas military bases and hundreds of thousands of troops stationed overseas. U.S. special operations forces operate in over 100 countries.
Yet, there was a time in this country when the idea of a U.S. global empire of troops and bases was unthinkable. It was not dishonorable to serve in the military. The military was not the president’s personal attack force or the policeman of the world.
Does America need a comeback? I think the answer is quite obvious. Can America make a comeback? I think it is entirely possible. How can America make a comeback? That is a question that has some surprisingly simple answers.
Before looking at some key comeback principles, it is important to note some bogus comeback principles, mainly offered by conservatives: a national economic policy, higher tariffs, increased military spending, trade restrictions with China, better trade agreements, economic nationalism, buy-America campaigns, made-in-America campaigns, energy independence, a national industrial policy, subsidizing domestic manufacturing, economic patriotism, escalating the drug war, providing more vouchers for “school choice,” strengthening Social Security, increased regulating of big tech, building a border wall, and restricting immigration. In conjunction with this is the passing of “good” legislation instead of repealing existing legislation, and the reforming of government programs and agencies instead of eliminating and abolishing them.
When Trump promised in his speech to make America powerful, wealthy, strong, proud, safe, glorious, and great again, he didn’t say much about how he intended to do these grandiose things other than to elect him. “I am running because I believe the world has not yet seen the true glory of what this nation can be,” said Trump. Yet, in this very same speech, Trump called for the execution of drug dealers “for their heinous acts.” But more government tyranny is not the kind of comeback that America needs. The answer is also not to be found in some beltway conservative plan that promises to balance the budget in ten years (while increasing defense spending every year) and perpetuates the welfare state with a series of reforms and modernizations.
We can begin with three general principles that are essential for an American comeback.
The first general principle is that of federalism. As James Madison so succinctly and eloquently explained in Federalist No. 45: “The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government, are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite.”
The second general principle is that of the proper role of government. As Thomas Jefferson said in his first inaugural address:
The sum of good government is a wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned.
The third general principle is that of nonintervention and neutrality. As Thomas Jefferson also said in his first inaugural address: “Peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none.”
And here are some more specific principles that will ensure an American comeback.
Because discriminating against someone is not committing aggression, force, coercion, threat, or violence, and because antidiscrimination laws violate freedom of conscience, property rights, freedom of association, and freedom of contract, there should be no antidiscrimination laws whatsoever.
Every crime needs to have an actual victim — not a potential victim or a possible victim, but rather a tangible and identifiable victim who has suffered measurable harm to his person or measurable damages to his property.
Paying taxes is not voluntary or patriotic. And neither is it the price we pay for civilization. Taxation is government theft. If the federal government simply followed its own Constitution, 90 percent of the federal budget could be eliminated along with the taxes that fund it.
No American is entitled to receive anything at the expense of any other American. Not a job, not food, not clothing, not education, not medical care, not child care, and not a place to live.
All goods and services can and should be provided on the free market.
The free market in goods and services should be absolute, including even when it comes to things like education, health care, sex, employment, alcohol, and drugs.
No American should be forced to pay for the health, education, or welfare of any other American — regardless of how sick, old, poor, disabled, disadvantaged, or needy that other American is.
All charity should be private and voluntary. Charity that is not voluntary is theft. And if it is illegitimate for the U.S. government to provide welfare and relief to Americans, then it is even more illegitimate for the U.S. government to provide these things to foreigners.
It is an illegitimate purpose of government to subsidize anything.
People should be allowed to do anything that’s peaceful as long as they don’t aggress against the person or property of others. And people should be able to do whatever they please, so long as they don’t invade the right and freedom of other persons to do the same.
These principles are the essence of a free society.
This article was originally published in the April 2023 edition of Future of Freedom.