This Year's Midterm Elections Are All about Freedom

This election is about more than who controls the Senate and House of Representatives. It is an election that gives us the chance to examine the “ideal of freedom.” The late Nobel Laureate, Friedrich Hayek, wrote about in his 1960 book, The Constitution of Liberty. You may have heard of Hayek and another book he wrote, The Road to Serfdom, from extensive discussions on “The Glenn Beck Show.”

Hayek wrote, “If old truths are to retain their hold on men’s minds, they must be restated in the language and concepts of successive generations …It has been a long time since that ideal of freedom which inspired modern western civilization, and whose partial realization made possible the achievement of that civilization was effectively restated.

The Nobel winner emphasized the importance of knowing one’s beliefs to prevent “drifting.”

“If we are to succeed in the great struggle of ideas that is under way, we must first of all know what we believe; we must also become clear in our minds as to what it is that we want to preserve if we are to keep ourselves from drifting,” Hayek concluded.

One-half century later we are still “in that great struggle of ideas.” While one may not know it from the endless political commercials that serve to mislead and appeal to emotion, there truly is a debate going on about what we believe and what we wish to preserve. The constitution has become a topic of conversation. For this we may thank the Obama administration and the Democratic Congress. They clearly believe that the federal government has arbitrary power. Whatever policy has 218 votes in the House, 60 in the Senate, and the president’s signature can become the law of the land.

When asked on Oct. 22, 2009, where the constitutional authority lay for the individual health care mandate in the health care reform bill, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi famously replied: “Are you serious? Are you serious?” This election is about replacing the Speaker of the House with someone who does indeed think this is a serious question. If the Democrats control the Congress on Nov. 3, it will be the case that America has drifted, as Hayek suggested, and perhaps drifted far enough that we no longer have constitutionally limited government.

As it is said, it is an ill wind that blows no good. The passage of a 2,800 page bill that creates 159 boards and commissions and has interjected the federal government into every corner of the nation’s health care industry has also resulted in 21 states in two separate lawsuits arguing that the bill violates the 10th amendment. When was the last time you can recall the 10th amendment being on the top of any agenda?

Yet it is, as Hayek points out, a crucial amendment, making it clear that the federal government only has enumerated powers. The realization by Americans that their federal government is not Leviathan unbound, but rather a government limited by its founders to the protection of life, liberty, and property, could determine the outcome of this election and in turn, the course of the country.

Aside from philosophical belief in the importance of individual liberty, there are important economic reasons for replacing a Congress that believes in a federal government that has arbitrary power with a Congress that believes, as Madison said in Federalist #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 former will be exercised principally on external objects, as war, peace, negotiation, and foreign commerce; with which last the power of taxation will, for the most part, be connected. The powers reserved to the several States will extend to all the objects which, in the ordinary course of affairs, concern the lives, liberties, and properties of the people, and the internal order, improvement, and prosperity of the State.”

One of the major reasons we still have an unemployment rate nearing 10 percent and 9.4 million people working part-time that would rather be working full-time, is that the federal government has created what Robert Higgs has called regime uncertainty.

Much of the lag in hiring is coming from small business, as small business is faced with massive uncertainty. The health care bill created enormous uncertainty about what labor costs will be if you hire someone full-time. First, you were unsure if the bill would pass, and now that is it passed you must await thousands of pages of regulations to know what you must provide in terms of health care to a full-time employee.

Add to this a 2,300 page financial regulation bill that has created uncertainty in the credit markets. On top of this, there is uncertainty about what the federal government may do to add to the utility bills of small business, whether through cap and trade legislation or EPA mandates. 

The 2010 midterm elections are startlingly important in their implications for both the institutional political structure of the economy and for the economic recovery. Should the party that has pursued legislation well beyond the powers enumerated in Article I, Section 8 remain in control there will be no certainty in the legislative environment and it will be a sign that the American public has given up on the principle of limited government.

This will result in a stagnant economy and a further diminution of our liberty.

Gary Wolfram is the William E. Simon Professor of Economics and Public Policy at Hillsdale College and a Business & Media Institute adviser.