I wanted to like Paul Ryan.
Before he was nationally known, Rep. Ryan visited me at ABC News, and we went to lunch. He was terrific. He was a rare politician, one who actually cared about America’s coming debt crisis and the unfairness of entitlements. He even talked about F.A. Hayek’s “The Road to Serfdom”! If only more politicians thought that way.
But then the housing bubble burst. Ryan voted for TARP. Then he voted for the auto bailout. Who is this guy? I thought he believed in markets!
When I got my own TV show at Fox, I asked him about that.
“I voted for TARP because I believed we were going to fall into a deflationary spiral, the economy was going to collapse," he answered. " The purpose of voting for that auto bill was to prevent the auto companies from getting TARP dollars. … Now TARP has become this revolving government slush fund. Never was intended ... .”
But in your ideal world, should government have bailed out the auto company?
“No,” his answer was.
I wish he had voted against those bills, but the political class was in near panic, and Ryan is a politician.
It’s a reason I don’t like politicians.
But at least Ryan speaks against bailouts now.
“We’re reaching a tipping point in this country where a majority of Americans are getting their benefits and livelihoods from the federal government ... ."
Why does this put us on a road to “serfdom”?
“Because we’re moving from a society where the goal of government is not to equalize opportunity but to equalize the results of our lives," he said. "The more we ask government to do for us, the more government can take from us. ... Government is doing so much in our lives that we have less freedom to govern ourselves.”
I like hearing a politician say that.
I told Ryan that I fear that most Americans don’t understand economics and actually prefer a government that “takes care” of us.
“No," he said. "I think people believe in the American idea, [that] our rights don’t come from government. ... And so we do not want a government where they give us our rights and redistribute, regulate and ration our rights.”
Hope he’s right.
In 2008, Ryan proposed a “Roadmap for the Future,” a budget plan that would slow the growth of government. It was timid. It wouldn’t eliminate the Education Department or other useless government agencies and wouldn’t balance the budget for decades.
Yet even Republicans said his plan was too radical. Newt Gingrich called it “right-wing social engineering.”
Last year, I invited Ryan back on my show to talk about that. By then, “the needle had moved.” Ryan’s Roadmap helped change the discussion. Many Republicans woke up. Newt apologized for his comment. The Republican Study Committee proposed bigger cuts.
Now, said Ryan, “I would call [my plan] mild. I was trying to get consensus. We’ve moved the center of gravity. We’ve taken on what they call the third rail, these entitlement programs which are the big drivers of our debt. We showed the country that there is a different way to go and that we can get back toward limited government, economic freedom. And I feel pretty good where we are and how we brought this conversation forward.”
He should feel good. For 50 years, the needle did not move at all. Americans accepted the welfare state. Now, more people understand.
“We have one more opportunity in this country," he warns. "It is not too late to revive and reapply the American idea. But there will come a point where that moment might pass us.”
Countries can get off the road to serfdom. As I explain in “No, They Can’t: Why Government Fails -- but Individuals Succeed”, Canada did it and prospered because of it. It won’t be easy for America, but if we do it, Paul Ryan deserves much of the credit.
“What I’ve learned in southern Wisconsin [is that] people are ready to be talked to like adults, not like children. And they know we’re in a debt crisis.”
Hope he’s right.
John Stossel is the author of "No They Can't! Why Government Fails -- But Individuals Succeed." Click here for more information on John Stossel.