THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY—OR REWARDING BAD BEHAVIOR

Last weekend I had dinner with a friend who is well-read, opinionated (no surprise) and conservative in his political and fiscal viewpoints (again, no surprise). He had an interesting take on our economic and energy future.

Until a few months ago, he, like me, saw no way out of our ultimate economic decline. More recently, he’s come to believe that we’re on the road to become the ascendant power (read: energy) broker in the world. Citing the huge shale deposits in the plains and the advent of fracking, he claims we have not only enough energy to become self-sufficient, but to supply the rest of the world with a competitive energy source for not just decades, but centuries to come. He believes the concern about contaminating the water table so high above the deposits is bogus, and that there is so much money to be made and jobs to be had that political and environmentalist opposition will ultimately be washed away like sand castles by a tsunami. He uses Pennsylvania as an example of a state that is beginning to make inroads on its debt by embracing the new approach while New York’s recalcitrance pushes it further into the red. He claims that Berkshire Hathaway’s demonstrated interest in rail transportation with the purchase of the Northern Santa Fe Corporation reflects their recognition of the changes to come. Where the oil companies used to waste billions of dollars looking for product, in the new order they will know exactly where it is and be able to turn the spigot on and off at will according to market demand. Our massive debt will slowly recede into the annals of history.

If he’s right, no one can argue that a way out of our fiscal catastrophe, a miraculous road to economic recovery, isn’t a good thing. But it comes at a price—the bad news is that we’ll still be relying on potentially polluting, non-renewable energy stores. Contrary to liberal beliefs, we conservatives don’t want to sacrifice clean air and water at the altar of money; we just don’t want the government foisting expensive, not-ready-for-prime-time energy technology on us and picking winners and losers.

The ugliest fallout from this new economic order will be the effect on our values as a nation. If we defer the consequences of growing a big, inefficient government in a debt-ridden welfare state, even for a few centuries, we will not escape the ultimate demise of the liberty our Founding Fathers had hoped to assure by instituting a system based on limited government, charity and self-sufficiency. In Thomas Jefferson’s own words, “A wise and frugal government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned.” And, “If we can prevent the Government from wasting the labors of the people, under the pretense of taking care of them, they must become happy.”

The old saw, “money can’t buy happiness,” carries a great kernel of truth. If my friend’s assessment of our economic future is accurate, it may buy us something almost as important—time. Whether we use that time to return to our roots or continue down the same, well-trod path to fiscal dependency is up to us.

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