JimmyCarterJimmy Carter is the only president of the United States I ever wrote a letter to. I didn’t send it. But I did write it. Somewhere in my boxes of scraps I still have my notes for that letter.

I was inspired to write my epistle after listening to his infamous “Malaise” speech, which was given 34 years ago, on July 15, 1979.

Now, no one in his right mind would be interested in looking at that letter, since I knew nothing of politics, or the economics of energy, at that time. But after a year-long hiatus from thinking about politics (my basic response to reading Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State and Utopia), Carter’s speech got me interested in issues of the day, again. And for that I thank him.

Today on Paul Jacob’s Common Sense site, he has an interesting side-column feature on the subject, filling up the daily spot for “Today in Freedom.” There’s not much about freedom in it, though. It commemorates a not-very-happy occasion:

On July 15, 1976, Jimmy Carter accepted the nomination of the Democratic Party to run for the presidency. Three years later, as president, he gave his infamous “malaise” speech, in which he focused on energy but did not mention the one thing that actually helped turn the ’70s’ energy crisis around: the phased deregulation of oil prices that had started three months earlier, under his own directive. Instead of touting this deregulatory effort, Carter did the usual political thing and promised a number of new government programs, spoke exensively on a “crisis of confidence” meme, and vaguely talked of a spiritual crisis.

The deregulation was most effective, in the long run — though the immediate effect was a rocketing of prices. These high prices presented profit opportunities, and (lo and behold!) domestic production greatly increased, allowing for many, many years of lower prices.

Had Carter deregulated prices earlier, he would probably have been re-elected president.

The price controls had been put in place earlier in the decade by the Republican president at the time, Richard M. Nixon, with the great help of his aides Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld.

The political point here is an interesting one: the problem that Jimmy Carter in effect solved was one caused by Republican operatives who went on to become very, very influential. Had Carter ballyhooed his deregulatory effort, and skipped the hand-wringing about a “crisis of confidence” — or, better yet, offered the deregulatory effort as a response to the widely-perceived crisis of confidence — he might have trounced Ronald Reagan. And that might have been a good thing: No War on Drugs ramp-up, less loss in civil liberties, no Waco, fewer wars.

It is because of that “malaise” speech written by Hendrik Hertzberg and Gordon Stewart, that Democrats turned from reality to fantasy, the fantasy that government is not itself the problem. They, the Democrats — it was Ted Kennedy who was really responsible — had supported the deregulatory agenda, for the good of consumers. But they couldn’t translate their support into a rhetoric to help the American people get behind them. Instead, they chose the idiocies of dirigisme, which turned off a huge sector of the American people, at least as rhetoric. The summary of the speech and the cultural aspects behind it by Kevin Mattson in U.S. News and World Report could hardly be more wrong:

We would also do well to remember the sort of complexity and humility that Carter tried to inject into political rhetoric… Carter was unwilling to pander to the people… What Carter really did in the speech was profound. He warned Americans that the 1979 energy crisis – both a shortage of gas and higher prices – stemmed from the country’s way of life. “Too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does but by what one owns”, the president said. Consumerism provided people with false happiness, he suggested, but it also prevented Americans from re-examining their lives in order to confront the profound challenge the energy crisis elicited. Despite [some failures] Carter left behind a way of talking about the country’s promise and its need to confront what is undoubtedly one of its biggest challenges – to solve the energy crisis in a way that takes seriously both our limits and our greatness.

Yes, this is the rabbit hole into which the Democratic Party jumped, head first. It was a decisive moment in history. From this, there was probably no turning back.

And meanwhile the Republicans had the reverse problem. They found that a libertarianish message combined with warmongering and general anti-libertarian policies (including the greatest rip-off in human history, Greenspan’s “reform” of Social Security) worked gangbusters. For a while. But it also led to the binge in spending, debt accumulation, and the bailout mindset that completely unhinged American economic life from the rigors of the market’s self-regulation.

The success of Ronald Reagan and the corruption of Carter’s soul by lefty dirigisme pretty much wound the mechanism for America’s demise, which today we see unwinding in front of us.

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