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Economic conservatives–people who hoped the Republican Congress would reduce existing government barriers to free enterprise–are down in the dumps. It appears that expectations generated by the November 1994 election were well above the ability of this Congress to perform. From their point of view, after all the battles on taxes, regulations, the budget, and more, nothing really dramatic took place. Even though the good guys, for once, were in charge of the purse strings, from all appearances, it was business as usual in Washington.

Is this attitude justified? No, because it misses the bigger picture. It’s true that this Congress did not deliver according to promise, and many principled lawmakers are as aware of this as anyone else. But if ideas have consequences, something much more profound has taken place that will insure the free enterprisers the last victory. The American political and intellectual culture has undergone a dramatic shift.

In the upcoming election, no candidate for federal office will campaign for bigger government. The candidates who do, or who are perceived as doing so, will likely lose. The proponents of government solutions have lost the moral and political high ground. Bigger government only means higher taxes, more bureaucracy, and more policy failures. What’s more, everyone but the liberal elite knows it. Serious people no longer doubt it.

Sixty years ago, this would have been unimaginable. In those days, all “serious thinkers” in the West were on the side of socialism and planning. Intellectuals and politicians, East and West, were united on one central supposition about the future: freedom and democracy have failed and socialism and the managed society will take their place.

These were times when anyone who touted free enterprise and political freedom was laughed at and scorned, especially in the most “liberal” circles. Politicians rode to power on the promise of using government power to bring about progress. Everyone agreed that societies could not manage themselves, but rather they needed a great leader to guide them, plan them, mold them, and make them after the general will.

It took decades for this pro-socialist attitude to recede as the dominant strain of social thought among American intelligentsia. But today it has been reduced to, at best, marginal status. Of course, the soft-socialism of social democracy, the welfare state, and corporate planning survived–until very recently. Increasingly, however, all important intellectual and political battles are between the minority who have high regard for planned, secular society and the majority who do not.

How can the economic conservatives win more concrete battles in the future? They need a political program that is intellectually coherent and the self assurance that it is both moral and workable. To make this possible, economic conservatives will need to train themselves to develop a greater affection for the capacity of religious faith to bolster enterprise. The religious right could do for some more economic education and adopt a greater tolerance toward decentralized solutions to social problems.

Such things come in time. For some reason, people and cultures attach a great deal of significance to the idea of a century ending, and even more so to the end of a millennium. Think of what the message will be at this end of this one. Will it be that our future is with the omnipotent state which has done so much for so many in our times? Hardly. It will be that the state has failed. The future is on the side of the ruled, not the rulers.

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Rev. Robert A. Sirico received his Master of Divinity degree from the Catholic University of America following undergraduate study at the University of Southern California and the University of London.  During his studies and early ministry, he experienced a growing concern over the lack of training religious studies students receive in fundamental economic principles, leaving them poorly equipped to understand and address today's social problems.  As a result of these concerns, Fr. Sirico co-founded the Acton Institute with Kris Alan Mauren in 1990.