Re: ‘No Single Person Can . . .’

by Jonah Goldberg

John — if anything, I think you’re way too kind on the president’s formulation. I think you need to look at the prior two paragraphs to the one you cited for the full flavor.  

I read the first paragraph as the usual lip service he always delivers right before telling you what he really thinks. 

Through it all, we have never relinquished our skepticism of central authority, nor have we succumbed to the fiction that all societies ills can be cured through government alone. Our celebration of initiative and enterprise, our insistence on hard work and personal responsibility, these are constants in our character.

 In the next paragraph, we get the framing:

For we have always understood that when times change, so must we, that fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges, that preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action.

In other words, the old platitudes I just paid lip service to — and which continue to poll well — can now only be realized by embracing their philosophical opposite. In this case, individual freedom through collective action! Progressives have been trying to pull off this bait-and-switch for a century. New challenges are always requiring new responses that always require more government and less fidelity to established constitutional principles. 

And then, finally, there’s the classic horrible analogy masquerading as serious argument:

For the American people can no more meet the demands of today’s world by acting alone than American soldiers could have met the forces of fascism or communism with muskets and militias. No single person can train all the math and science teachers we’ll need to equip our children for the future. Or build the roads and networks and research labs that will bring new jobs and businesses to our shores.

Huh? So  ”acting alone” — a.k.a. individualism or “individual freedoms” in Obama’s words  – are as outdated for today’s challenges as muskets and militias would be in fight fascism and Communism. There’s a terrible apples-and-oranges problem here. Muskets and militias are technological and organizational tools. Individual freedom is something altogether different.  

(Also, the reference to “militias” was obviously deliberate in that he was clearly insinuating that militias are an old-fashioned thing, no longer relevant to today, a cute marker to lay down for the upcoming gun-control fight.)

Then, as you point out, there’s the horrible strawman argument about “no single person.” This is a rhetorical constant of Obama’s presidency. The choice is always between the atomized individual or the loving embrace of federal government in Washington. Either Julia’s all alone, or the government has got her back. Any acknowledgment that civil society, families,  the free market, etc. are collective enterprises is always omitted from the equation. Either you’re the sort of reactionary fool who champions individual freedoms — indistinguishable from the sort of idiot who’d fight the Wehrmacht with muskets — or you understand that now is the time for collective action. The problem is that devotion to our individual freedoms isn’t merely a “constant of our character” (and would that that were still as true as it once was) it’s also a bedrock principle of our constitutional order. That principle is not like a musket or a whale oil lantern or an 8-track tape. And comparing it to one is a horrible category error. 

One last point. As I suggested in the symposium over at Commentary, one of the defining features of liberalism these days is a renewed effort to merge cultural liberalism with statist notions of positive liberty. In several places in Obama’s address he makes the case that government is what, in effect, gives you freedom. That is what he is driving at when he says near the beginning of the speech, “history tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they’ve never been self-executing. That while freedom is a gift from God, it must be secured by his people here on earth.” And the way you secure those freedoms, Obama says over and over again, is through more governmental efforts and programs.