As dependency on government for various entitlements has grown, so has another kind of dependency. A perverse form of entrepreneurship is spawned as economic interests maneuver to become dependent on government-provided opportunities. As people become more deft at doing so, government becomes an engine of unearned inequality. This is especially a peril in successful societies. Economist Mancur Olson warned that the longer a successful society is stable, the more numerous are the successful factions — not the poor, or the unemployed or the new entrepreneurial risk-takers who are trying to gain a foothold against established competitors — who become deft at gaming the political system for advantages. These include domestic protectionism in the form of occupational licensure; or regulations that are more burdensome to newer and smaller entrants into a market than to large, wealthy corporations; or international protection in the form of tariffs and import quotas. More and more factions figure out how to prosper by achieving distributional advantages through politics. And society slowly succumbs to energy-sapping sclerosis.
Government needs to get back to basics. The political class, defined broadly to include persons actively engaged in electoral politics and policymaking along with those who report and comment on civic life, is more united by a class characteristic than it is divided by philosophic differences. The characteristic is a tendency to overestimate the importance of public policies, from which the political class derives its sense of importance. This is especially so regarding economic and social inequalities. These, the political class tends to believe, are largely the result of public policies and are therefore susceptible to decisive amelioration by better government actions. In the argument about which is primary, nature or nurture, the former receives an emphatic affirmation from the Founding Fathers’ philosophy. Beneath the myriad patinas of culture, there is a fixed human nature that neither improves nor regresses. What does change for the better is the capacity of certain portions of humanity to improve the legal, institutional and social structures for coping with the constants of human nature. And to do so without diluting America’s foundational commitment to take its bearings from the individual.