You’ve heard the fairytale about the goose that laid the golden eggs. Like most fairytales, there are many versions of the story. In Aesop’s telling, the “Countryman” who owns the goose grows rich as he sells one egg each day. But over time he grows impatient and cuts the goose open, hoping to find a lode of golden eggs. Of course he doesn’t, and he is much the poorer for it.
The story’s message is as true today as it was in ancient times. During the 2016 presidential campaign, the two most dynamic candidates were Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. Sanders decried the 1% who pulled the strings, got rich, and made life bad for everyone else. It was us against the 1%. On the right thundered Donald Trump, who promised to Make America Great Again by promising to get tough on immigration, raising trade barriers, and strengthening the military. There is a goose and she lays golden eggs, but the 1% (in Sander’s version) or immigrants and foreign countries (in Trump’s version) steal them.
Everybody else running for president were hopelessly vanilla. In comparison to Sanders and Trump, they seemed to stand for the status quo, which of course is always bad. In Sanders/Trump golden egg speak, the status quo equals someone else getting America’s eggs.
Is the status quo bad? Yes, in certain ways. Opioid addiction and the deaths it causes are status quo, as is worsening income inequality. But by most measures, these are very good times. The status quo isn’t so bad. At the end of the Obama Administration, unemployment was 4.6%, which is half a point below what the Federal Reserve calls full employment. The stock market went through a healthy expansion from 2008-1016, and has done even better during the Trump Administration. Crime rates are near all-time lows, and high school graduation rates are the highest ever, at 82%. Teens are smoking less and having less sex. If that’s the status quo, that’s not so bad. It sounds like there are a quite a few golden eggs, but we don’t seem to notice them in our midst.
Despite many strong fundamentals, the voters elected the man least happy with the status quo. Since his election, he has shown an authoritarian streak, firing James Comey and attacking the press and dozens of individuals. Despite complaining about Obama’s executive orders, Trump signed nearly twice as many as his predecessor in the first 200 days. The President routinely badmouths agencies, like the Justice Department and the FBI, that are the backbone of the rule of law.
Trump is the Countryman in Aesop’s fable. Impatient as the goose’s owner, Trump lurches from one policy whim to the next. He may just take the axe to the system. He may take an axe to the goose. And what is the goose? Liberalism.
By this I mean the liberalism you learned about in high school government class: individual rights, rule of law, democracy, free markets. The stuff we’ve been breathing since the 1700s. John Locke, Montesquieu, Voltaire, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and Adam Smith. But it’s like air. It’s there. We need it. But we don’t think about it much…
…until, I hope, it is threatened. And it is threatened right now. The voters who are energized, on both the right and the left, don’t think liberalism is working. Sanders and Trump—and even Hillary Clinton—were against the Trans-Pacific Trade Partnership, the kind of free trade policy the US used to champion. One reason the stock market is so high and unemployment and inflation are so low is because of, not despite, global trade. The only major drop in the stock indices during the Trump Administration have come after he slapped tariffs on Chinese goods. If we keep the new Trump tariff regime, other countries will retaliate. Goods will get more expensive and unemployment will rise as trade and commerce slow.
The past 30 years have been very good for the world, despite the bad news. And the number one driver of the good has been liberalism. But the liberal order is vanilla. It’s the air we breathe. It’s the stuff that sustains us but we don’t see how it sustains us. And liberalism is the goose that lays the golden eggs. Some liberals want to radically change the Constitution. Some conservatives are willing to suspend elections to stay in power. Faith in the goose—democracy, capitalism, rule of law, and institutions—is eroding. The axe is sharpened.
I’m happy to see that there’s a backlash against the pessimism. I encourage you to read Gregg Easterbrook’s It’s Better Than It Looks: Reasons for Optimism in an Age of Fear; Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress; and Hans, Ola, and Anna Rosling’s. Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World—and Why Things Are Better Than You Think. Very recent books like Jonah Goldberg’s Suicide of the West and Edward Luce’s The Retreat of Western Liberalism take a closer look at the theme of this article. Both Goldberg and Luce recount the fable of the goose and the golden eggs because it is an apt metaphor for our current peril. We live in the richest, safest, and most democratic time in history, yet we are very close to ending it in a fit of pique. Let us turn our gaze away from the goose and focus on the real problems of our age, including climate change, inequality, global poverty, and the recent rise in authoritarianism. Spare the goose…and save civilization.