An Engaging Recipe for Revitalizing American Society

Published February 4, 2015

Review of What Works: Common Sense Solutions for a Stronger America, by Cal Thomas, Zondervan Publishing House, 2014, 224 pages, ISBN-13: 978-0310339465, $14.29 on,

Cal Thomas is among America’s most prominent conservative newspaper columnists, appearing in hundreds of newspapers for more than three decades. He has written about, and railed against, the increasing size of government and the decline in morality and human values that enables the government to infringe on our freedoms.

At least half of our nation has chosen to trade their freedom for a long list of handouts, which the author says is leading to social decay. By returning to common sense and the principles on which our nation was founded, he writes, the decline of America is not inevitable.

‘Groundhog Day’

Weighing in at just 224 pages, What Works makes for easy reading. However, don’t be fooled by its small size. Thomas’s book is full of hard data on the failures of government and how each administration seems to make the same mistakes, over and over.

As a result, life for most Americans has become as though we were trapped in the movie Groundhog Day, in which Bill Murray’s character is forced to repeat the events of the same day, again and again. 

Thomas is a deeply religious man, and his devout Christianity shines through his words. He defines clearly the nation’s economic and moral problems and offers sound solutions which one can accept without agreeing with his religious beliefs.

His descriptions of big government’s failures may be all too familiar to regular readers of the Heartland Institute’s many publications, including Budget & Tax News.

Rejecting Opponents’ Charges

“If conservatives want to see their ideas prevail and ideals achieved,” Thomas writes, “they must stop playing on the liberals’ field, and by their rules.” Instead, he argues, conservatives should stop responding to outrageous charges of not caring for the poor, the immigrants, minorities, and women.  

Early on in the book, he notes that every problem these days is presented as a crisis solvable only by more government.

The founders of our nation did not intend this, Thomas notes, and he proves this by referring to the debates between the Founding Fathers in the Federalist Papers.

Today, Thomas says, few people realize the Papers “were thought of as notes by the founders that expanded on their motivations and philosophy as they formed this more perfect union.”

He describes the Federalist Papers as “a rebuke to those modern political leaders, which may be why more schools don’t teach them,” and Thomas’ insights into the philosophical arguments behind our nation’s founding will amaze the reader.

‘Extremely Well Read’

One particularly notable section of the book stood out in my mind and was worth the price of the book by itself.  Defining the five major sectors of world philosophies—animism, naturalism, pantheism, post-modernism, and theism—along axes of humans, reality, truth, and values, Thomas’s formulation is helpful for navigating the world of philosophy.

Thomas is extremely well-read, sprinkling the book with historical quotes from people who foresaw the obvious downhill trend of government, implying what would work is essentially the opposite of what is daily done. 

For example, Thomas Jefferson said “a government big enough to give you everything you want is a government big enough to take away everything that you have,” Alexis de Tocqueville warned us “the American Republic will endure until the day Congress discovers that it can bribe the public with the public’s money.”

Such “common sense solutions,” Thomas says, are practically the opposite of our nation’s direction in these latter days.  

Solutions from the States

Thomas found most of “what works” comes from state governments rejecting the federal government’s failed central planning.

He highlights programs in Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, Ohio, Texas, and Wisconsin, dealing with issues such as college scholarships, debt reduction, economic development, education reform, government staffing reductions, taxpayer refunds, pension deficits, property rights, and tax reduction—to name just a few.

‘Enabling Personal Responsibility’

Another highlight of the book is Thomas’ explanation of Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) plan to reform Medicare. Thomas’ review captures the Ryan plan’s simplicity and power.

Because the Ryan Plan weakens the federal government’s power over the people, Thomas says, it has not gained favor in Washington. 

Thomas expands on his explanation of the Ryan Plan, showing how enabling personal responsibility and increasing freedom is the cure for most of our health care problems, ranging from mental illness to reforming nursing homes.

Ultimately, a message of personal freedom and individual achievement carries through the book as the bedrock for righting what is wrong.

That, readers will conclude after reading this enjoyable book, is “what works.”

Jay Lehr, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is science director at The Heartland Institute.