Stephen Covey, the management guru who died this week, would have had a hard time selling his books in Benjamin Franklin's America, or Abe Lincoln's. His best seller "7 Habits of Highly Effective People" would have been considered a self-evident truth, one drummed into earlier Americans by schools, churches and the Puritan ethic.
Today, Covey's thoughts about how to become a success by applying principles with a proven track record seem innovative and cutting edge. His work is a rebuke to the notion that government can do it all for you.
President Obama said during a campaign stop in Roanoke, Va., last Friday: "If you've got a business, you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen." He mentioned roads and bridges as examples. Did he mean we should thank government for the structures because without them we might not be able to travel to a job interview, or to work? The subplot in the president's campaign remarks seems to be that none of us can make it without government. So what happens to those who do manage to succeed on their own? Are they to be taxed and regulated to death as a lesson to other upstarts?
As I read the president's remarks, I thought of those in my life who have helped me. My parents, of course; they remained married and taught me about thrift, paying bills on time and personal responsibility. There were also high school and college teachers who inspired me.
Journalistic mentors included David Brinkley, Frank McGee and Sander Vanocur. These accomplished broadcast journalists started small and seemed to succeed without much, if any, government help. Many of their generation benefited from the GI Bill, a government-funded resource that helped pay for college for returning World War II veterans. But unlike most government aid programs, the GI Bill assisted initiative, it didn't replace it.
Later, a newspaper publisher -- Tom Johnson -- opened the door for me as a columnist. He didn't sell it. I sold it by visiting scores of newspaper editors around the country, telling conservative audiences to subscribe to the paper when it started carrying me. That would fit under Stephen Covey's number one principle: be proactive.
A financial adviser helped me make good investments so I can take care of my wife and myself should I ever decide to retire (liberals, don't hold your breath). It was money I earned, not money government gave me.
Government that is too large and controlling stifles ambition and initiative by penalizing success.
As the Obama campaign attacks Mitt Romney's business success -- and by association all who have succeeded or wish to succeed -- Romney should turn the tables and attack seven principles that have made government highly ineffective.
1. High taxes. High taxes rob the productive and discourage innovation.
2. Too many regulations. Overregulation inhibits private industry from performing up to its potential.
3. Overspending. When an individual is in debt, he or she aims to spend less until the family budget is in balance. When government spends more than it takes in, it creates an addiction and burdens current and future citizens. Politicians won't tell anyone "no," so government keeps spending.
4. Foreign adventures. We cannot afford to go everywhere in hopes of promoting liberty. We should only send troops where our interests are clearly defined and an achievable outcome is likely. Countries receiving military assistance must help pay the bill.
5. Bureaucracy. There are too many people working for government. Many agencies and programs are unnecessary.
6. Health care. Government can't make you healthy. Obamacare will not only cost more, but will reduce the quality and availability of good health care, as in the UK. A private-sector solution is preferable.
7. Ignoring the Constitution. The best habit the American government could practice is a return to the principles of that great document that set boundaries for government and removed them for its citizens.
Inspiration and perspiration are habits that usually lead to success. Government's bad habits produce unending debt and stifle private-sector job creation. That's the counterargument to these bad habits.
(Readers may e-mail Cal Thomas at email@example.com.)