One of the wisest American former officials I know asked me a few nights ago: “Michael, put on your thinking cap, and tell me where the United States will be four years from now, if Barack Obama is president.”
I had been trying to avoid that question in my own mind. I have tried to tell myself the old proverb (told me by my father), “God takes care of children, drunks, and the United States of America.” I have tried to imagine that Obama will not be president.
But I should try to do the responsible thing: follow the trail from Obama’s announced principles and policies to their probable effects, based on how we have learned that the world actually works.
The number one issue, orders of magnitude greater than others, is what will happen in Iran, Saudi Arabia, and other sources of worldwide terrorism — suicide bombers, haters of Israel, and would-be destroyers of the United States and her allies. What will happen in Iraq? What will happen in Iran? What will happen in Pakistan?
Our Democratic party ever since George McGovern’s candidacy in 1972 has wished and wished, like an undisciplined child, for a benevolent world of peace, in which we could “talk to” and “reason with” those leaders whom earlier administrations had learned they could neither trust nor deal with as rational, benevolent partners. Earlier administrations had also hoped that other leaders of nations respected us, and meant us well. Events like the bombing of the World Trade Center, the attack on the USS Cole, and September 11, 2001, plus the subsequent fury and irrational cruelty of jihadists around the world, disillusioned them. But not, apparently, Obama; nor many members of the left-wing generation he represents.
The partisans of the welfare state demand peace, in order to pay for its insatiable need to keep handing out more and more benefits. That is why left-wing statists take peace as their natural inheritance. They cannot go on without it. They do not intend to pay any price for it; there are no funds left for that.
Given the historical record of the last 200 years (and more), what can we expect from this nursery-room fantasy? An untypical, even unprecedented era of peace? Or, on the contrary, the salivating determination of enemies to celebrate our visible moral weakness, and to slay their hated enemy while we bow our heads, standing there as weak and frightened supplicants? When a head is lowered from weakness, they strike it off.
In my experience, unwillingness to fight earns one contempt, further furies of terror, and truly bitter war. But perhaps other observers trust human nature more than I.
If the United States shows signs of weakness, surrender, and a one-sided departure from Iraq, the rejoicing of those who predicted that they would in the end defeat us will profoundly strengthen their resolve for the next battle. Further, without an offensive thrust in Iraq, any military forts or airfields of ours would be sheltered in a defensive enclave — announcing to those who hate us that they should keep killing two or more Americans every day, drip, drip, drip, until the American people cannot stand it any more. Weakness once shown invites fiercer aggression.
Iran will thus have its nuclear weapon by 2012, secure in the knowledge that Americans have no heart to do battle to prevent it.
In Pakistan, forces of economic and political development will know that they can no longer count on the Americans as a last resort. They would soon — to save their families — begin to yield more and more space to jihadists, terrorists, and promoters of sharia law. Free nations by 2016 will be far weaker than now, with far less space in which to alter the direction of terrorism.
Meanwhile, if Obama keeps his pledge to raise taxes on the top 10 percent of income earners (or even on the top 2 percent), he will give them enormous incentives to alter their behavior, so as to show lower income. Since the top 1 percent of earners pay over 35 percent of all income taxes paid by all Americans, any decline in their income means a steep decline in tax revenues. Obama seems to have no comprehension that raising tax rates at the top dramatically lowers revenue coming in. He will learn the hard way.
His policies on quasi-universal health care will change all the incentives in our current health system — and for the worse. Studies show that a high proportion of demands for health care are the result of personal behaviors — eating or drinking too much, not exercising enough, leading a dissipated life, not taking advantage of preventive care, spending health dollars heedlessly (because they are paid by the State, not the responsible individual).
Many older doctors will leave medical practice rather than become employees of the State, constantly regulated, badgered, and demeaned. The idea of medicine as a proud, independent, inventive profession will be profoundly wounded. In hospitals, paying benefits for patients (even if they practice irresponsible behaviors) will demand ever more dollars, which must necessarily be pulled out of research and invention. Long bureaucratic lists of those needing particular operations will force even the neediest patients to wait long months before they can get care.
Neither Obama nor his party seems to understand how incentives motivate human behavior — not force, not coercion, not mockery, not nursery-school regulation, but real possibilities of good fruits up ahead for free and responsible actions. They do not understand the wellsprings of a virtuous, free, and prosperous society. They are still entangled in the fantasies of the European Left of 150 years ago.
Thus, Obama is now the creature and the prisoner of the American far Left, which has learned nothing from the failures of socialist and statist and anti-capitalist ideas during the past hundred years. Many leftists learn nothing, know nothing, and propel themselves not with practical wisdom, but with outrage and contempt and a desire to punish those who do not agree with them.
My friend himself thought, he finally revealed, that the West has come to an epochal axial point in history. From now on, economic and political progress would grow far less quickly than ever before, and a long-lasting, precipitous decline is about to begin. Overseas, and also at home.
Morally, too, virtue and character and responsibility for oneself would be mocked and discouraged. The State would take over more and more of life. Although licentiousness would be glorified on big screen and small screen (the Democrats favor the Hollywood view of the world, and vice versa), neither self-directed liberty nor self-mastery nor responsibility for the consequences of one’s own behavior would be encouraged. These would be treated as retrograde ideas. All virtue would be attributed to the motherly caring State — and to its political managers. Woe to the “right-wing” dissenters!
Well, maybe I am wrong. But that is how I see things, admittedly through a cloudy glass.
My only two suppositions are (1) that Obama will do exactly what he now says he will do; and (2) that we may dimly discern the consequences likely to flow from his words and actions, based upon what we have seen happen in other decades and other generations.
My most hopeful moments derive from imagining that Obama, as president, will be dissuaded from acting as he now says that he will. In that way, God will once again take care of those who are drunk on statist illusions, and He will once again take care of the United States, despite itself. It is when I take Obama at his word that pessimism floods over my heart.
– Michael Novak is the winner of the 1994 Templeton Prize for progress in religion and the George Frederick Jewett Scholar in Religion, Philosophy, and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute. Novak’s own website is www.michaelnovak.net.