Taking the oath of office at the 2013 Inauguration, President Barack Obama placed his left hand on bibles that Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Lincoln owned. Both American heroes believed government played a vital role in creating jobs. King and Lincoln exuded confidence that job growth occurs when smart government's expertise combines with energetic private businesses.
President Obama understands why citizens demand government get off their backs. He realizes that Uncle Sam's Band-Aid fixes to employment dips make citizens lack confidence in government. Then they believe the specious argument that only the private sector produces jobs.
Speaking for unemployed citizens, President Obama declared in his second inaugural address: "We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, any one of us, at any time, may face a job loss, or a sudden illness, or a home swept away in a terrible storm. The commitments we make to each other through Medicare and Medicaid, and Social Security, these things do not sap our initiative. They strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers. They free us to take the risks that make this country great."
Like Lincoln, President Obama believes the public and private sectors share a symbiotic relationship which produces jobs. Similarly, the Apostle Paul envisioned the Christian community as a body knit together. A hand can't survive severed from an arm. A heart can't be disconnected from blood supply. "The body is one and has many members," writes Paul, "and all the members of the body, though many, are one body. So it is with Christ" (I Corinthians 12:12).
As a young legislator, Lincoln learned the West was won through government initiatives and financial risk-taking on the frontier. Such reality debunks the American myth of solitary entrepreneurs using market forces to harness new capital to create jobs.
Quite the opposite happened. Uncle Sam's deep pockets covered initial skyrocketing debts when 19th century canals were first dug. Lincoln realized trade transported through Chicago and crops shipped to New Orleans on the Mississippi River would not make these destinations without the government's underwriting costs for expensive transport facilities.
Taking a cue from the government partnering with private firms in digging canals, Lincoln pursued projects that redistributed wealth to working citizens. The Homestead Act, for instance, shows how Lincoln used the government to create jobs. Critics wanted Congress to sell huge chunks of the West to wealthy investors who in turn would pay pioneers to settle the frontier.
Instead, Lincoln persuaded Congress to pass the Homestead Act, which gave the little guy a chance to stake a claim before land barons owned all the territory. The government granted a pioneer 160 acres as long as he committed himself to homesteading the plot and living on it for 5 years. Yet even with government aid, many pioneers didn't fulfill the self-made-man myth. Some turned back. Arid soil, relentless wind and plagues of locusts destroyed crops. Still, brave pioneers survived because of Uncle Sam's financial entitlements.
Next, Lincoln signed legislation creating the Department of Agriculture. Working in tandem with farmers, the feds shared scientific research and growth techniques, using resilient seeds. With Uncle Sam's help, pioneers increased yields.
Once harvest came, Lincoln urged Congress to fund railroads to bring crops to ports. The Pacific Railway Act gave incentives to the Union Pacific and Central Pacific to connect our nation with the East-West transcontinental line. Lincoln required railroad companies to competitively bid on land where they laid rails. Towns sprung up. After the railroads came through, private business boomed on dusty main streets.
The West was won because Uncle Sam formed partnerships with railroads. The federal government heavily subsidized loans, cavalry guards, land grants, mail service and special naval funding to open up the West
No collection of John Wayne heroes with grit and initiative conquered the West. Government aid effectively and abundantly helped them.
President Ronald Reagan overlooked this history of public and private partnerships on the frontier. He fabricated tales about people who excelled because they did it on their own without government support.
"Government is the problem," he declared. Reagan told of a black woman caring for orphaned children in New York's tenements. He said her example showed how an individual solves complicated social problems. Commenting on wife Nancy's work with drug centers, Reagan in a 1984 campaign film said, "These (centers) were started not by the government, but by people."
Reagan coined slogans, perfected catchy phrases and invented stories that made bogus history compelling to citizens.
"In ideological terms," writes historian Garry Wills, "the story (Reagan's yarn) assumes that the individual makes all the difference. There was no need for historical process, social transactions, political pressure, the play of interests, gradual shifts in the climate of opinion, a complicated sequence ..." ("Reagan's America: Innocents at Home," p. 166).
Frontier history disproves Reagan's conviction that job makers stand alone. Individuals who practice personal responsibility don't create all the jobs. They often rely on Uncle Sam.
Emancipate yourself from ignorance regarding the American Dream. Our smart government and private enterprise work together, as they did winning the West, to create jobs so citizens prosper and our nation flourishes.
The Rev. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God's history come alive. Van Ens' book, "How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes," is available in local bookstores for $7.95.