Obama’s Paradox
His election vindicated America's ideal of equality. Will his policies promote a paternalism that erodes it?


Barack Obama’s election as the first black president of the United States confirms the promise of America’s core belief “that all men are created equal.”

The paradox of his election is that it comes at a time when, with the bursting of the subprime mortgage bubble and a stock-market panic, many Americans are tempted to return to paternalist policies that promote a servility that is incompatible with the principle of human equality.

Benjamin Disraeli understood very well the connection between paternalism and servility. Watching Abraham Lincoln attempt to root out caste spirit in America in 1861, Disraeli predicted that he would fail. Lincoln’s “mighty revolution,” far from vindicating equality, would backfire, and would “tell immensely in favor of an aristocracy.”

Disraeli was wrong about the result of the Civil War, but right about the way aristocratic paternalism undermines equality. The age of feudal aristocracy might have been over, Disraeli saw, but that of government aristocracy was just beginning. “The divine right of kings may have been a plea for feeble tyrants,” he wrote in 1870, “but the divine right of government is the keystone of human progress.”

Particular emergencies require energetic government, and there are times when people need a helping hand. President-elect Obama’s challenge will be to find ways to give people that helping hand without raising up massive and all but ineradicable bureaucracies that degrade the human spirit by taking away from citizens decisions they must make for themselves, and by insulating them from the consequences of their actions.

It won’t be easy. When times are hard it is tempting to imagine that supervisory agencies with wide discretionary powers can solve our problems for us and deliver, deus ex machina, the prosperity we seek.

In the long run, however, it is the initiative of free people that solves problems and improves the quality of life. Exaggerated rhetoric about the failure of free markets should not be permitted to obscure that basic truth.

Freedom works because it liberates the human spirit and removes barriers to achievement. Paternalism doesn’t work because over time it turns too many citizens into helpless wards of the state — a sub-caste permanently unequal to the challenge of life — and puts obstacles in the way of other citizens whose productive energies are taxed in order to pay for the chandala class’s upkeep.

If he is to succeed in the White House, President-Elect Obama needs to promote, through his policies, the principle of equality his own election so signally confirmed. He must find a way to address the current discontents without returning to paternalist policies that will jeopardize an ideal of which he himself is one of history’s most striking embodiments.

— Michael Knox Beran is a contributing editor of City Journal. His most recent book is Forge of Empires 1861-1871.