What’s the best way forward for American economic policy? On Independence Day it’s natural to look to the country’s founding principles—political freedom and economic freedom—for an answer. 1776 was not only the year when Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, it was the year when Adam Smith wrote the Wealth of Nations. We can learn what to do by studying the alternating periods in American history when careful attention was paid to these principles and when they were recklessly neglected.
From the perspective of today’s dismal economic performance—high unemployment and a nearly non-existent recovery from a devastating recession—the final two decades of the 20th century are particularly relevant for they stand out as unusually good economic times. With lessons learned from the 20th century’s tougher decades, including the Great Depression of the ‘30s and the Great Inflation of the ‘70s, America entered a period of unprecedented economic stability and growth in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Not only were 47 million jobs created, economic growth was more stable than ever before in American history.