In the frenzy over the townhall questioner’s question yesterday – “Are hot dogs and beans my new reality?” – Obama’s response has been widely missed. Yes, the response was dismissive and lame, discursive and yet virtually content-free. But it contained a brief and perfect encapsulation of his philosophy of government, which is the philosophy of government toward which the political left spent the last century trending. Video here.
And this is the money passage:
The life you describe, one of responsibility, looking after your family, contributing back to your community – that’s what we want to reward.
I was driving and heard this on the radio – the clip was played endlessly yesterday – and my immediate thought was, “Who’s ‘we,’ keemosabe, and who died and made you God?”
The idea of a winning style of life being selected for us by a central authority – and being encouraged by “reward” – is a central tenet of Western leftism. Back when I was in college, during the Cold War, campus leftists always assured us that when we implemented this kind of authority, it would be about rewards and voluntarism, as opposed to the unfortunate practice in all existing Communist countries of making it about coercion and punishment. (They always had to be brought up short by a questioner about the “excesses” of Communist zealotry, because they never pointed it out themselves.) Obama – a close contemporary of mine in age – no doubt heard the same things from campus leftists.
But this is a collectivist idea, period. It cannot be rationalized in any political system in which individual freedom is the priority. It’s antithetical to the American political idea of limited, constitutional, republican government. Government anointing itself to set a schedule of lifestyle rewards for the people is government conceiving itself to be far too big, too intrusive, and too much aligned with a collectivist ideology.
Government does have proper functions, but as a servant of the people and with a limited charter. There is literally no one of us with the competence to prescribe how others should live and then supervise them, with the power of the state behind us, in that project. Government is just other people, whom we have handed a gun and authorized – for a very limited set of purposes – to point it at our heads.
The truth is, moreover, that government can achieve an effect only through one or more of the following: punishment, taxation, purchase, and favoritism. Government can’t work through lifestyle reward; it can only enforce conditions that allow the natural rewards of positive lifestyles to accrue to the people unhindered. This truth is why the Communist proposition always – always – degenerates into punishment for nearly everyone and favoritism for a few. It’s because those are the tools government has. Government doesn’t have inspiration, hope, or the synergy of innovation and market dynamics in its toolbox; and it can’t make the rest of humanity reward each of us, on an artificial basis, as humanity is naturally inclined to reward us if we live in certain, well-established and positive ways.
Government actively gets in the way of reward by trying to design it or fine-tune it – because government’s only tools for carrying that program out are punishment, taxation, and favoritism (with purchase thrown in under the favoritism heading, as when government creates new dependencies by subsidizing or buying the products of uneconomic industries). The more things government is doing, the more punishment, taxation, favoritism, and purchase (at taxpayer expense) are going on. Government literally cannot work through other means, because it’s government.
So when Obama talks about the behavior “we want to reward,” think managerial government on the European model – but think also of Lenin and Stalin, of Castro, and of Mao. If you didn’t learn about their use of punishment and favoritism in school, think about the lifestyle autocrats you did learn about. When Obama says he wants to reward the people for behavior, he’s speaking like Oliver Cromwell, or like a European monarch of the Middle Ages with sumptuary laws and courts of religious inquiry, or like a Roman emperor offering to reward peoples who were willing to subject themselves to Rome with citizenship, administrative subordination, Roman troops on their soil, and Roman control of their trade.
In referring to government choosing the behavior it wants to reward, Obama is merely aligned with one of the perennial patterns of humanity. Today’s leftists have slapped a different label on it, but it’s the same old urge to autocracy. America’s very essence is the proposition that government need not and should not be autocratic: that the people have not just the right but the authority to tell government, “Do this for me; but that’s too much.” Of course we can say that to government.
After all, as a well-known president used to say, we’re Americans.
Cross-posted at Hot Air.