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America isn't Greece — at least not yet

The founders' vision of limited government and individual initiative can be salvaged

By Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

8:00 AM EDT, August 12, 2012

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Unidentified woman: "Well, doctor, what have we got — a Republic or a Monarchy?"

Ben Franklin: "A Republic, if you can keep it."

My periodic public speeches around the country usually end with an extended question and answer period. I enjoy these sessions because the tone and tenor of the questions provides me insight into the public mood.

One question that pops up with increasing frequency is a modern day adaptation of Franklin's historic dare: whether our Constitutional Republic and free-market capitalism are salvageable. The issue is typically presented in a negative light, as in "aren't we past the point of no return when it comes to the scope of government intrusion into our lives?"

Not surprisingly, the issue is more frequently presented in conservative audiences, where the Obama administration is often Exhibit A for the "we're finished" crowd.

Well, the honest answer to this most distressing of questions is yes, and no.

With regard to yes, there is no doubt the federal government has grown inexorably large. Federal spending in 2011 was $3,603,100,000,000. The federal deficit for 2011 was $1.3 trillion. And federal debt is projected to be 70 percent of gross domestic product by the end of 2012. Today, Congress and an activist judiciary ensure that the federal government reaches into every nook and cranny of American life, from local public education to health care. And Congress meets every year, which means government grows every year.

A further disquieting point for conservatives: the wholesale expansion of federal power has been a bipartisan phenomenon. Republicans have far too often acquiesced to relentless Democratic attempts to expand federal jurisdiction.

So the commonly accepted view that Republicans are the party of big government and Democrats the party of really, really big government rings true in many respects.

Another popular indictment in particular audiences is that President Barack Obama is a closet socialist, which he clearly is not. Socialism contemplates governmental ownership of the means of production and distribution — a view never espoused by the president. A more accurate label would be "European style social democrat" — a worldview reflected in the president's relentless campaign to make an already progressive federal income tax code more progressive and to expand government entitlements whenever feasible.

An unassailable conclusion presents itself: the rapid expansion of federal power shows no sign of slowing down. And each generation of Americans has grown increasingly more comfortable with a large federal presence in our lives. Accordingly, it is difficult to imagine any successful effort to walk back significant portions of the modern welfare state.

Now, for the good news. All is not lost. Jeffersonian ideals prosper in many parts of the country. A majority of Americans continue to value individual enterprise. We have no shortage of entrepreneurs ready and willing to take risks in order to be successful. A majority of our citizens still view government largesse as a temporary helping hand rather than a way of life. And, at least over the past few years, a number of successful governors have begun to turn the tide against perpetual government growth and the more radical elements of public sector unionism. Indeed, at least in America, a significant number of public sector employees recognize the need for more balance in their benefit packages. It is a trend that must continue if we are to avoid more of the bankruptcies hitting California's municipalities so hard today.

For context, examine the sorry state of so many European economies. Huge debt burdens, high marginal tax rates, low productivity, unaffordable public sector benefits, and a heretofore demonstrated unwillingness to recognize pending fiscal crises are pervasive.

In Greece, the head of the state power company employees' union claims that "people and their needs are far more important than the needs of the market." Such a sound bite sounds so wonderfully populist, until one realizes that it is a healthy, competitive market that produces the goods that feed the people and their needs. No wonder Greece's sharp left turn has been so disastrous. This is the face of real socialism. And it has produced the always guaranteed (but never quite expected) results.

We are not Greece, yet. A majority of Americans continue to value enterprise over entitlement, capitalism over socialism. But we had better pay attention to what truly produces opportunity and wealth before the comparisons become more accurate and we fail old Ben's wonderfully blunt instruction.

Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s column appears Sundays. The former Maryland governor and Member of Congress is a partner at the law firm King & Spalding, the author of "Turn this Car Around" — a book about national politics — and Maryland chairman for the Romney presidential campaign. His email is ehrlichcolumn@gmail.com.