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Keeping the Presidency in Perspective

December 29, 2011 J

It’s election season, in the midst of a prolonged economic meltdown, so it’s not surprising to hear presidential candidates making superhuman claims about the miracles they can do for the economy. But in a truly free market system, and under the Republican form of government Americans inherited, in which the president’s powers are limited, a chief executive’s real influence over the economy should fall somewhere between modest and minimal.

It’s a bit disconcerting, therefore, to see self-styled conservatives playing a game of Job Creation Derby with the President, given that the Right has traditionally been far less interventionist, and far more laissez faire, than the command- and-control, pump-priming Keynesians on the other side.

This recent piece in The Washington Times not only points out that government is far more adept at hurting the economy than helping it; it also might provide conservatives with a timely reminder that there are (and there ought to be) limits to how much a president can do for or to the economy. Any politician who claims the wizard-like power to “create jobs” is a politician to worry about, since such attitudes are incompatible with the freedom-oriented economic and political systems Americans claim to revere.

We ought to be wary of any candidate who doesn’t have the humility to recognize and respect the limits of economic interventionism. A president’s job ought to be enforcing a few simple rules, protecting private property and other civil liberties and otherwise getting government out of the way, allowing the real job-creators and wealth-producers to do their thing. A president, if he or she wants to be helpful to the economy, should focus on preventing government from killing jobs, and on creating an economic climate hospitable to free enterprise, rather than trying to “create” jobs or bolster pet industries. The rest will take care of itself.

Swept-up in the irrational exuberance of the moment, and in trying to compete with a President who believes he has God-like powers, it might be easy for conservatives to forget that they’re non-interventionists on the economy. Acting otherwise isn’t just presumptuous. It doesn’t just raise impossibly high expectations, resulting inevitably in disappointment and cynicism. The worst thing about it is that it’s incompatible with the freedom-oriented economic and political systems we Americans inherited. It creates an expectation for greater and greater interventions, leading down the path to the sort of the centrally-planned, command-and-control economies we associate with Soviet Russia, Red China, North Korea and other non-free societies. And that isn’t something any self-respecting conservative or libertarian should embrace.

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