This is a speech that, in some form, a future president of the United States will have to give if our freedoms are to be restored.
My fellow Americans,
I come to you tonight not just as your President but as a teacher and a fellow learner. All teachers need to learn too. How can I lead, how can I teach, if the principles that guide my behavior are not renewed in me every day? Over the coming months, I hope we will join together as a nation in conversation. A conversation, not just with empty promises—such as “unleash prosperity for everybody” that one of my predecessors gave in 2009—but a conversation with great ideas. And the point of this conversation will be not just to study what somebody else had said, but to learn that, as a free people, we must understand these ideas for ourselves.
Our nation is bankrupt, and it is time to rebuild. But we can only rebuild upon the principles that promote freedom and prosperity. So tonight, I come to you to begin a national dialogue on these principles. This educational process will take many years.
How can we learn anew the value of something that we have deliberately thrown away? Many of us learn by stories. A story can give rich meaning to a principle, and tonight, I start with one. One would’ve thought that a basic principle such as you can’t destroy your way to prosperity would have been obvious. Unfortunately, back in 2009, it wasn’t obvious to even some trained economists.
You may recall the so-called “cash for clunkers” program. That program paid a person $4500 to trade in an old car for a new car. The government then required the dealer to destroy the old car. Not even the engine or the tires could be salvaged.
Famous economists, such as Alan Blinder, supported the bill as a good stimulus for the economy. Many politicians claimed the bill was good for the environment. Many in the public, their powers to reason having atrophied, based their opinions on the thirty-second bites they heard on the news.
But what could we have been thinking? The idea that we can create prosperity through destruction was proven to be a fallacy in 1850 by the French economist Frederic Bastiat in his essay “What is Seen and What is Not Seen.”
What is seen is that there is a new car sale that may not have occurred otherwise. What is unseen is the effect that the money would have had had it been saved or spent on something else. What is unseen is that there are fewer used cars for poor families. What is unseen is that the supply of used engines is reduced. What is unseen is that the environment is damaged by all of these cars that have been destroyed.
At one time in our history, logic was part of the curriculum in our schools. Reductio ad absurdum means to refute an argument by showing the logically absurd consequences of the argument. If cash for clunkers was a good idea, would it not have been even better to bulldoze old houses and give those families cash to buy a new house? Any school boy who had studied the logic of Bastiat’s essay could have pointed out that we would have been poorer, not richer, had we done so.
Didn’t Congress and the President know better? A fair assessment is that most Congressmen and the President were illiterate about economics. But their ignorance was an effect, not a cause of the terrible policies that were passed early in the 21st Century. The real cause was that the public was ignorant and content to be so.
And so we begin this national journey to learn anew our lost heritage. The role of these national conversations, which I will lead, will be not only to teach, but to inspire. But your inspiration will come not by cheering at platitudes but by your earnest study. This is the price that must be paid to once again be a free people. Only a people who understand the principles of liberty will elect politicians who support these principles. Thomas Jefferson understood the power of education: “I know no safe depositary of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true correction of abuses of constitutional power.”