The story of America was written by people who took big risks and reaped large rewards.
Through the early days of our republic, thousands of settlers moved west in search of a better life. Business leaders built railroads, companies and manufacturing plants. Some -- John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, George Pullman, and, much more recently, Bill Gates -- made massive fortunes as they created millions of jobs and delivered the products that built a nation.
Many others, of course, simply went bust and disappeared. Their names are lost to history. But all entrepreneurs, successful or not, had something in common: They took risks.
These days, though, "risk" is a four-letter word. Governments worldwide aim to stamp it out. But that impossible task brings dangers of its own.
Consider the recent cloud of volcanic ash that swept across Europe. Governments acted quickly to ground virtually all passenger planes, leaving hundreds of thousands of people stranded. The flight ban lasted almost a week and could cost the European Union more than $3.3 billion. But, on further review (as they say in the NFL) the lengthy ban seems like a drastic overreaction.
"It's obvious that at the start of this crisis there was a lack of definitive data," Jim McKenna, the head of Britain's aviation authority said. "It's also true that for some time the density of ash above the U.K. was close to undetectable."
Airlines wanted to fly, but couldn't. "Behind the scenes our engineers and all the experts were telling us that there was no danger at all to flying, and that the danger would have been if we had flown close to Iceland through the volcano," Richard Branson, head of Virgin Atlantic and a risk-taker himself, said. "I think the [British] government has accepted that there was overreaction." But it's not clear that the British government intends to act differently if there's another eruption. "Safety is paramount," a spokesman told the Telegraph newspaper.
There's plenty of federal overreaction here at home, too. In fact, one "unacceptable risk" is probably on your kitchen table right now.
Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., say the U.S. faces "a public health crisis" because of its salt intake. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, agrees. He wants the Food and Drug Administration to act quickly to limit sodium.
How much is too much? "We should be taking in about a teaspoon a day," says Jane Henney of the University of Cincinnati. "But we're consuming about a teaspoon and a half." A thumbnail-sized portion of salt requires federal intervention?
This sort of micromanagement of our lives pops up on a large scale, too. The health care "reform" law passed this year aims to spend trillions to protect Americans, even though some 85 percent of us already have insurance and are happy with it. The law puts our future national prosperity at risk, by creating an entitlement our government can't afford.
Washington's attempts to eliminate risk may also eliminate jobs. A financial-reform bill proposed by Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., is being sold as consumer protection. But it would actually put taxpayers on the hook for future bailouts. Moreover, "it is a job and innovation killer of the first order," according to John Mauldin, president of Millennium Wave Advisors. And yet the 1,400-page bill sailed through committee in 22 minutes, as lawmakers raced to "do something" to "protect" us.
Americans need government to protect us from foreign threats and local criminals. But we can't afford a government that's large enough to attempt to protect us from everything.
The risks we take often deliver the greatest rewards. We shouldn't surrender our great American spirit for the promise of safety that bureaucrats can never deliver.
Ed Feulner is president of The Heritage Foundation, www.heritage.org.