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The Bush Institute Talks with Congressman Paul Ryan

August 26, 2014 11 minute Read by The Bush Institute

Last night, Congressman Paul Ryan visited the Bush Center while on tour promoting his new book, “The Way Forward: Renewing the American Idea.” Earlier this week, he sat down with the Bush Institute to discuss the ideas his book presents on economic growth, principles of conservatism, and the role of civil society.

You write that America is due for a comeback and that “the way forward” fosters risk-taking, ingenuity and creativity. Can you describe the way forward, in terms of the economy?

The goal obviously is to maximize economic growth and potential but to also maximize economic growth everywhere. In order to do that, you have to put in place the kinds of pro-growth policies that are necessary to have real and organic economic growth. Not top-down growth, but bottom-up growth.

That means clearing the regulatory reform barriers away from businesses to materialize to grow, cleaning up our tax system so we can be competitive, getting our budget under control so our entitlements are solvent, and making sure our debt is paid off. And it means making sure that our monetary policy is focused on sound money so that we have a reliable store of money.

Getting the basics and the fundamentals back in place will help the private economy grow and hit its potential. We are settling for subpar growth - for growth at 2.5, 2.7 percent. Imagine what kind of growth we would have when we get to 3 or 4 percent, what that would do for the economy, what that would do for the debt and the deficit, and what it would do to provide opportunities for young people who are struggling to get good careers coming out of school.

You also write that the American Dream is deeply rooted in the fact that we are a nation of immigrants. How should Americans be thinking about immigration and the benefits that it brings, particularly to the country’s economic success?

A lot of people are very much torn on this issue and there’s a lot of distrust of Washington. I completely share and understand that frustration, but I think if you want to look at the long picture, at the horizon, let’s ask ourselves what we want.

We want a system where we control the borders, our government controls the borders, so that we know who’s coming and going in the country. That’s essential for national security, it’s essential for our economic security.

But we also want a system of legal immigration that works to serve the needs of our economy. Because as those baby boomers are retiring, and they’re retiring very quickly, fewer people are following them into the workforce. That means fewer people to fill the jobs that are going to be needed. And that means our economy grows slower, so that our kids and our grandkids don’t have the kind of economic growth they need to maximize their potential and prosperity.

So you need smart, legal immigration that works well for our economy, and the only way to get that is to have a legal immigration system wired  for economic growth and to have secure borders and interior enforcement so that we are in control of who comes and who goes, for the sake of our economy and our national security.

You’ve said that to move issues, your strategy is “to get the conversation started, apply your principles, show a solution, normalize it and then try and get it done." How do you do that in Washington?

That’s what I’ve been trying to do with entitlements for the last decade. We’ve made some good progress on Medicare reform, even though we haven’t put it in place. President Bush started that conversation. I’ve been trying to take it from there. And we’ve had some bipartisan support for our ideas to save Medicare and strengthen it versus Obamacare.

We need to put our ideas out there, make sure they are rooted in our founding principles – liberty, freedom, free enterprise, federalism, government by consent of the governed, self-determination – critical principles that are as relevant today as ever before. We need to show what these policies produce, defend them, know that they’re going to be controversial, and weather those storms nonetheless so that we can show people how they can produce better livelihoods.

We need to show people that we can reinvigorate the American idea, which in a nutshell is that the condition of your birth does not determine the outcome of your life. This is the land of opportunity. Anybody can make it. Opportunities are around the corner, and we seek to equalize access to opportunity, not to equalize the outcomes of people’s lives, which I would argue is the false promise of liberal progressivism that is triumphing or presiding in Washington right now.

Here at the Bush Institute we talk about being a policy center outside of Washington, and that we have a unique ability to discuss solutions outside of a hyper-political climate. You say what’s missing in America right now is “fresh thinking, good solutions, and real leadership.” So how can we jumpstart that conversation outside the Beltway?

I think you’re already doing it. Leaders outside the Beltway just need to start focusing on solutions. And those of us involved in the federal government need to free people up so that they can implement those solutions.

If we say send all of our power and all of our money to Washington, that means unelected bureaucrats will impose their will, will micromanage our lives and our economy, and will ignore us. This is why we have to decentralize power, restore the Constitution, and empower people in our states and localities to solve problems.

This is also why I talk a great deal about civil society, social capital, that space between a person and their government, which is where we lead our lives. It’s that magic that Alexis de Tocqueville talked about that made America so special and so unique, which is that we are full citizens who help and create and serve others in our communities voluntarily.

This is important. This is the secret sauce of our success in America and government can crowd it out. Government can displace it. Government can do a lot of damage here. This is why those of us who are conservatives believe in limited and effective government. The left likes to caricature us as if we are against all government, that’s not true. We’re for limited government so that it can be effective and do what it’s supposed to do, do well – like a smart safety net, like the foundations for economic growth, like national security and a strong national defense.

But that also means that we respect people and communities so that they can be vibrant and have a good, strong civil society like the one I grew up in in Janesville, Wisconsin, which helps people when they have problems. That’s what brings us together. It’s basically a vision of American life that is society-centered and filled with collaboration instead of a government-centered vision of American life based on coercion.

These are two different visions for America based on two different political philosophies – one that is rooted in our founding, one that is rooted in the re-founding of the progressive vision. It’s important that we as Americans see these ideas for what they are.  It’s important that we as elected officials who don’t like the direction the country is going explain this, showcase our solutions, bring the question to the country so that we can have elections that are true, honest, and meaningful choices. If and when we win these elections, we then have the obligation and the mandate to fix these problems before they get out of our control.

The wealth and potential of North America -- the U.S., Canada, and Mexico -- has long been an element of U.S. policy. How do we ensure that North America sustains our competitive position?

Right now, the best place is energy. The greatest gift is the discovery of shale and technology to be able to get oil out of shale. We should have a North American energy alliance to harmonize our regulations, to help bring North America to being an energy-independent continent so that we can export energy, lower our prices, bring manufacturing back to North America –to America in particular – and lower our prices and create more jobs.

Because of the energy boom that is before us, the Mexican government’s getting its act together with their constitutional changes. Canada’s already using their oil sands. America is behind. I mean thank heavens … most of the shale places are on private lands, but there are enormous opportunities on public lands … this is an opportunity for a North American energy alliance that could be a boon for our continent.

I am a little concerned about protectionism in Canada with respect to agricultural products. We need to confront that. The Canadians are our great allies, but we need to make sure that they want the kind of trading that will help expand and not contract trade within us.

As a House Ways and Means Committee member, I get a little caught in the weeds on these issues. But we need to work with our friends in the north, which are right across the border from my state, to make sure their agriculture markets are open to our products, and vice versa. But I think energy is a fantastic opportunity for North America to really be a dominant source of energy for the world. And by the way, that helps us with our foreign policy. By giving the Europeans and the Japanese and our allies access to our oil and gas, that will help us wean them off of their dependency on countries that do not share our interests.