The Choice: Welfare State Or Opportunity Society

By Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.)

Americans sent a message to Washington in November that they would no longer tolerate a government that grows too large, too fast, while our most urgent concerns go unaddressed. Policy-makers in Washington must put an end to the overreach and start to address the need for sustained economic growth, job creation and government restraint. Much work needs to be done to tackle our fiscal and economic challenges – but I am optimistic that we can chart a new course.

Earlier this year, as the U.S. House failed to even propose a budget, President Barack Obama punted the issue of our fiscal future to a commission. Despite this lack of leadership, this commission defied expectations by putting forward a serious and credible plan aimed at reducing deficits. I spent the past year as a member of this commission, working with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to advance solutions to put us back on a path to solvency and prosperity.

By putting forward a specific plan and advancing an adult conversation on this issue, the commission was a success. I could not support its final report as a whole because it lacked an adequate strategy for containing health care costs and it relied too heavily on tax increases. Nevertheless, the commission proposed a host of positive reforms that I’m eager to build upon as the House Budget Committee chairman next year.

In sharp contrast to the heated rhetoric of the campaign, I was encouraged to see the commission put forward a plan to make Social Security sustainably solvent, drawing upon several provisions in my own reform plan, the Roadmap for America’s Future. The commission’s plan also proposed hard caps on spending to help limit the growth of government and make an immediate impact on our ballooning deficits. And its tax recommendations contained the acknowledgement that lower tax rates are critical to economic growth. These proposals and recommendations can attract bipartisan support, and all will be crucial to our future fiscal and economic well-being.

But we cannot build a prosperous opportunity society unless we deal with the exploding cost of health care. The president’s new health care law exacerbates this central challenge, adding new liabilities on top of our already unsustainable health care entitlements.

Government health programs can help fulfill the mission of health security, but the current structures of Medicare, Medicaid – and now Obamacare – rely on a faulty architecture that puts the federal government in charge on health care decision-making. Without true choice and competition, the only way to control costs in this system is to impose price controls, restrict access and rob consumers of basic choices about their own health care – in other words, to take the approach enshrined in the Democrats’ new law.

The alternative would be to put our health care entitlements on the path to solvency and sustainability by slowing the growth of benefits for the wealthiest earners and making the providers of health care compete with each other for our business. Most important, we can deliver these reforms while making no changes for those in or near retirement (55 and older). On the president’s commission, I partnered with Alice M. Rivlin, a former Clinton administration official, to advance these ideas, indicating that there is a bipartisan way forward on health care.

The explosive growth of government casts a shadow over economic activity in this country. Job creators are worried about the massive tax increases that will be required if we don’t address this problem now. Although I support the bipartisan compromise to avoid massive across-the-board tax hikes on Jan. 1, we need to permanently put to rest the idea that we can chase ever-higher spending with ever-higher tax rates.

The deficit debate is not merely an exercise in arithmetic; it is also a conversation about the role and purpose of government. Do we wish to accept a cradle-to-grave welfare state, in which more Americans depend on the government than on themselves, or do we want to promote an opportunity society that promotes human flourishing, connecting effort with reward?

The former is where we’re headed if we remain on our unsustainable course. The latter will require a restoration of the foundations for growth: low tax rates, spending restraint, reasonable regulations and sound money. Will we be mature enough to start laying those foundations now, before it’s too late? Recent events leave me hopeful – but it will require committed leadership to seize this opportunity and meet our most pressing challenges.

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