After the chaos of 2020 — a year marked by a deadly global pandemic, a painful economic contraction, widespread civil unrest, and a bitterly contested presidential election — it’s safe to say Americans are deeply concerned about the state of our nation.
The numbers tell the story. According to the RealClear Politics polling average, more than 67 percent of Americans believe the country is on the “wrong track.” Only a little over 22 percent think things are headed in the right direction. Meanwhile, the average approval ratings for Capitol Hill paint an even darker picture: Only 18 percent of Americans approve of the job Congress is doing, with over 69 percent disapproving.
One might think that facing such a dire collapse in public faith in the nation’s governing institutions, our elected officials would focus on positive, forward-looking actions to restore confidence. Instead, they’re obsessed with sowing division and exploiting discord.
Enough. What we need is a future-oriented agenda to end the atmosphere of polarization, recrimination and stagnation. The focus needs to be on unleashing the productive energies of American entrepreneurs and workers by getting the government out of the way. It’s the essential condition of human flourishing.
There are four key pillars to this agenda:
First, it’s time to relax or end unnecessary and arbitrary business closures. In the spring of 2020, it was understandable that state and local governments might need to take temporary emergency measures to limit the spread of the COVID-19 virus. But no one anticipated that those emergency measures would still be in effect nearly a year later, an economic own-goal with a punishingly high cost. With proper hygienic and preventive measures (social distancing, masking and hand-washing) and the arrival of COVID-19 vaccines, we must reopen the economy and get people working again.
Second, we need to liberate entrepreneurs and workers by giving them the right to earn a living. That means taking a hard look at the outdated regulations, laws and occupational licensing schemes that are stifling business growth and locking willing, often first-rung, employees out of the workforce. Given the breadth and depth of our economic challenges, we need to put as many Americans back to work as quickly as possible. That starts with removing the regulatory barriers that are holding them back.
Third, we need to ensure that the burdens of the pandemic aren’t foisted on unpopular groups. For months, landlords in cities across the nation have been forced to provide essentially free housing for their tenants owing to an array of questionable and unconstitutional moratoria on rent payments and evictions. The same is true even of commercial properties — even when the tenant can pay the rent. Many of these property owners, typically small-time landowners, are on the verge of economic ruin, which will only exacerbate the already tight supply of affordable properties for housing and business as landlords exit the market. We need to restore the rights of property owners to make productive use of their property.
Finally, we need to return the branches of government to their proper constitutional roles. In the early stages of the pandemic, governors and executive branch agencies claimed emergency powers to respond to the virus in the name of health and safety. But all too often, these emergency powers were deployed in ways that were arbitrary, abusive and unaccountable. Legislatures should reclaim their law-making and oversight powers, and courts should act as a necessary check on these unconstitutional overreaches of executive and bureaucratic power, becoming the bulwarks of liberty they were meant to be.
Twelve months ago, when we had little idea of the scope of the looming crisis, Americans were willing to give elected officials and policymakers the benefit of the doubt as they worked to calibrate the proper response to an unforeseen and poorly understood public health threat. A year later, it’s past time to enter into a new phase — one that focuses on ushering in a recovery based on getting government out the way, reaffirming the importance of constitutional liberties, and liberating the productive energies of American entrepreneurs and workers.
But that will require fresh thinking and a willingness to look beyond the stale and failed approaches of the past. With a change in administration, it’s time to think about a fresh start — and these four agenda items will help restore confidence and create a better future for all Americans. Let’s seize this opportunity.
This op-ed was originally published by The Hill on February 1, 2021.