Ronald Reagan once quipped — not altogether in jest — that the nine most frightening words in the English language were, “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” To these nine might be added 11 words spoken by President Barack Obama in his March 30 news conference announcing the terms under which the federal government would now be effectively running General Motors and Chrysler: “Starting today, the United States government will stand behind your warranty.”
Boy, if there were ever a reassuring statement, Obama’s from last week would be right on the money — a statement signifying that an organization which has run up debt faster and to greater levels than any government in peacetime, and which is utterly unable and unwilling to balance its books, would be standing behind the warranty on my Dodge Magnum.
Such a statement by a president of the United States might be considered comical, were it not for the gravely serious ramifications of what Obama is doing. The plan to insert the federal government into the board rooms and repair shops of two of America’s Big Three automakers, while not necessarily the final nail in the coffin holding what used to be the world’s greatest reservoir of entrepreneurship and individual freedom, is darn close to it.
While Obama can hardly be blamed for initiating the process that has dramatically undermined America’s position as the world’s most inventive and entrepreneurial nation, he appears committed to finishing the process that began in earnest in the 1970s. Simply consider for a moment where his most recent edicts leave these latest victim-beneficiaries of government largess. GM’s CEO was forced out not by shareholders or by the corporation’s board of directors, but by the president’s so-called “auto task force,” a multi-member group of current and former government officials, not one of whom is elected by the American people or by GM shareholders.
And poor Chrysler. This venerable company formerly headed by Lee Iacocca, and whose muscle cars once ruled America’s freeways and racetracks, has been placed in the unenviable position of negotiating with Italian carmaker Fiat under an Obama-imposed deadline of 30 days or face bankruptcy. In those negotiations, who would you rather be — Chrysler or Fiat?
The president and his crack team of automobile bureaucrats mean to tell America’s automakers how, when and in what quantities to produce the cars they want — the government, that is; not the consumer. Unfortunately, many Americans today are too young to recall the last time Washington decided to dabble directly in the automobile manufacturing business, beginning in the mid-1970s and continuing into the ’80s.
For those of us who lived through Detroit’s “lost years” (and Japan’s golden ones), who can forget the models rolling off America’s automobile assembly lines, dictated by government crash-test standards and mileage requirements, and laden with environmental paraphernalia so complicated only a computer or a rocket scientist could repair a malfunction. This era produced some of the ugliest, most underpowered and dangerous cars ever to roll off those assembly lines.
The current headlong rush by Washington to stifle entrepreneurship is not only forward-looking, it is historic as well. Consider the venerable incandescent light bulb — the universal caricature of a “good idea.” This remarkably simple and dependable device, patented in 1879 by America’s greatest inventor, Thomas Edison, has lit countless homes, businesses and, yes, even government buildings during its 130-year life.
Yet, despite the fact that it continues to this day to perform precisely the task it was designed to carry out — providing instant illumination dependably, cheaply and without damage to the surrounding environment — the incandescent light bulb is being deliberately rendered extinct. Its replacement? The compact fluorescent bulb — a more expensive product, one that contains a toxic substance (mercury), and which performs demonstrably less well than the bulb it is replacing. Such “progress” we can do without.
In this new age of government-run businesses, in which bureaucrats tell us what cars we can have, what light bulbs we can use and which toilets we can flush, it is likely that Encyclopedia Britannica’s future editions of the world’s “great inventions” will not only be considerably shortened, but contain far fewer American entries.