Obama’s ‘Redistributive Change’ and the Death of Freedom
Beware the International Covenant on Economic, Social & Cultural Rights.


Andrew C. McCarthy

There should no longer be any dispute that Barack Obama’s aim is to socialize the American economy — as he vaporously puts it, to bring about “redistributive change.” The real question is how he’ll go about it. Very likely, the answer lies in a potentially cataclysmic treaty that has gotten virtually no attention during the campaign: the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

To rewind, Obama expressly endorsed “redistributive change” in a 2001 Chicago Public Radio interview. Lamenting that the Warren Court (the tribunal that spawned a revolution in criminals’ rights) “wasn’t that radical” after all, Obama sought to prove his point by citing the justices’ failure to take on “the issues of redistribution of wealth, and of more basic issues such as political and economic justice in society.

It was an early iteration of the socialist philosophy Obama recently made famous in an exchange with Joe Wurzelbacher, aka “Joe the Plumber.” Of course on the latter occasion, when Obama spoke of planning to “spread the wealth around,” it was a slip. The candidate is far more guarded now than he was in 2001, just as he was more coy in 2001 than in his mid-Nineties incarnation — when he first sought to represent an extremely left-wing district and embraced his endorsement by the radical Chicago New Party (ACORN’s electoral arm with ties to the Socialist International).

By 2001, as he eyed national office, Obama put on mainstream airs. He couched his radicalism in soothing euphemisms. “Economic justice,” however, is simply the finance angle of “social justice,” the idée fixe of Obama and his coven of Change-agents — like Michael Klonsky, the communist educator who ran a “social justice” blog on Obama’s official campaign website. Such radicals give the Warren Court high marks on non-economic rights, but flunk the justices on redistribution: the purported right of society’s ne’er-do-wells to pick the pockets of its achievers through the coercive power of government.

As Obama sees it, the Warren Court failed to “break free from the essential constraints that were placed by the founding fathers in the Constitution.” The judges instead clung to the hoary construction of the Constitution as “a charter of negative liberties” — one that says only what government “can’t do to you.” For Obama, economic justice demands the positive case: what government “must do on your behalf” (emphasis added).

True to form, Obama has twisted the most elementary points. First, the Framers viewed government as a necessary evil: required for a free people’s collective security but, if insufficiently checked, guaranteed to devour liberty. The purpose of the Constitution was not to make the positive case for government but for freedom. Freedom cannot exist without order, and thus implies some measure of government. But it is a limited government, vested with only the powers expressly enumerated. As the framers knew, a government that strays beyond those powers is necessarily treading on freedom’s territory. It is certain to erode the very “Blessings of Liberty” the Constitution was designed to secure.

Relatedly, the Constitution does state the positive case for government in its opening lines. Government is required to safeguard the rule of law and the national security. These injunctions are vital: there is no liberty without them. Why, then, do Obama and other Leftists ignore them? Because they don’t involve picking winners and losers; they eschew social engineering. These guarantees, instead, are for everyone, uniformly: Government must “provide for the common defense” and “promote the general welfare” (emphasis added). The Blessings of Liberty are to be secured “to ourselves and to our posterity”—not to yourself at the expense of my posterity.

The question isn’t what government “must do on your behalf.” It is what government must do on our behalf. In general, the positive power of government is for the body politic, not the individual. Of course individuals have rights. But those rights comprise a sphere of personal liberty against government. In that sphere, each individual Joe the Plumber is free to work hard, or not; to make of his life what he will, bearing personally the consequences of his choices. Freedom, after all, includes the freedom to fail. Pace Obama, failure is a part of life — there is no right against it.