He's been saying it a lot lately, most recently on his tour of South America. President Clinton wants to "give people the tools to succeed."
Growing up, I remember my parents telling me, "You can do anything you set your mind to," and "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again." They were teaching me the importance of persistence. I never recall them saying that Presidents Eisenhower or Kennedy or Johnson would be giving me the tools I needed to succeed.
What could President Clinton possibly mean? Back in the days when most graduates of institutions of higher learning were supposed to be reasonably conversant with philosophy (defined as "a discipline comprising as its core logic, aesthetics, ethics, metaphysics, and epistemology"), such notions that government held the tools for success would have been a cause for some derision. Now, Mr. Clinton is taken seriously when he says such things.
In an era in which big government is supposed to be over, it appears that it is just beginning. Call it the era of the big tool shed, leading to home improvement.
What do human beings lack that government must give them in order to succeed? More than anything else it is freedom ("the absence of necessity, coercion, or constraint in choice or action"). Freedom should not be confused with license ("a freedom that allows or is used with irresponsibility; disregard for rules of personal conduct").
Freedom is what our founders gave us with their revolution that overthrew the tyrannical British monarchy's stranglehold on our continent. Freedom, not government, has led to inventions and progress at every level. When government gets out of the way, the American people take the tools of freedom to build better lives for themselves and thus an improved nation.
I like the way Rush Limbaugh puts it in his October newsletter: "Government doesn't give you anything ... unless you are dependent on government-and then what you're 'getting' is actually holding you back." It isn't the computer wiring of American classrooms that will give students the tools they need to learn. It is the freedom of parents to send their children to the schools that they, not government, choose.
Government won't determine the future. You and I will, but only if society remains free, unencumbered by the strangulation of higher taxes and more oppressive regulations that restrict freedom. Again, Mr. Limbaugh is correct when he says, "Liberalism, at its heart, is: low expectations, pessimism, an assumption that ordinary people are helpless. All of American history proves that false. Every American family proves that false."
What are the tools government plans to give us? The president doesn't say. But they aren't available just yet. Maybe they're on the other side of the bridge to the 21st century over which he'll take us. But how do we get them? Who pays for them? What will they look like? And why can't we have them now if so many people are in desperate need?
The tools that built America are strong families, hard work, self-respect (not self-esteem), and a vision for one's life. Government can't give anyone these. They come from parents, from God, from mentors and heroes.
By saying that government has the tools for success, Mr. Clinton implies we cannot be whole or complete without the presence of government in our lives. It isn't true. It never was. Only those who desire power for themselves want a greater and more powerful government. The rest of us realize that, as government's influence shrinks, freedom grows.
That's what Somerset Maugham thought when he wrote in 1941 at a time when freedom was being challenged all over the world: "If a nation values anything more than freedom, it will lose its freedom; and the irony of it is that if it is comfort or money that it values more, it will lose that, too."
© 1997, Los Angeles Times Syndicate