In case you missed it, President Obama visited the People’s Republic of Vermont last week. It was, as the President reminded his adoring fans at a March 30 rally, the first time a sitting president had visited the land of Senator Bernie Sanders (Independent-Democratic Socialist) since 1995 (when another Democratic president was running for reelection).
To the delight of his audience, POTUS engaged in all the familiar rhetoric about investments in clean energy (Solyndrais, it seems, now an “investment”), the gallant rescue (a.k.a. bailing-out) of the Detroit car companies (driven into the ground by an-out-of-control UAW and decades of management acquiescence), and how a second term is a sine qua non for everlasting change. Hidden in the text, however, were a few lines that revealed a great deal about how President Obama understands how we actualize our responsibilities to our neighbor.
Describing his conservative opponents’ position on this subject, the president insisted:
Their philosophy is simple: You are on your own. You’re on your own. If you are out of work, can’t find a job, tough luck, you’re on your own. You don’t have health care, — that’s your problem — you’re on your own. If you’re born into poverty, lift yourself up with your own bootstraps even if you don’t have boots. You’re on your own. They believe that’s their — that’s how American [sic] has advanced. That’s the cramped, narrow conception they have of liberty. And they are wrong. (Applause.) They are wrong.
With these straw men of neo-Darwinian advocates of what the president called “you’re-on-your-own economics” firmly established in his audience’s mind, the commander-in-chief then claimed that, unlike his dastardly rivals, he and his disciples recognized that “I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper.”
But who is the “I” that President Obama has in mind? Looking carefully at his speech, it’s most certainly not the free associations and communities that Alexis de Tocqueville thought made 19th-century America so different and alive when compared to his own already state-centric native France. No: Our number-one “keeper,” in our president’s mind, is the federal government.
This much becomes evident as we look at the ideas for “rebuilding America” listed in the speech. It was all about government investment in things that went far beyond the type of public works that no less than Adam Smith thought governments should undertake. Virtually every proposal involved more government expenditures on things like clean energy (again) and that perennial favorite, high-speed rail (sigh).
Even when the president proposed something sensible, such as stopping “taxpayer giveaways to an oil industry that has been rarely more profitable,” he quickly added that now was the time to “double down on clean energy that has never been more promising — solar and wind and biofuels, and energy efficiency, electric batteries.” Apparently, our leader hasn’t noticed that even some European governments, many of whom have been handing out as much pork as possible to politically connected, politically correct crony-capitalists over the past 15 years, are concluding many of these projects aren’t likely to be economically viable either now or in the distant future.
Leaving aside all these blind-spots, it’s especially noticeable that when insisting we must take care of our neighbor the president said nothing about the role of volunteer associations — or any non-state formation whatsoever — in addressing social and economic challenges. Nor did he mention anything about the often-selfless work of loving our neighbor undertaken by the same religious organizations whose constitutionally guaranteed (and natural) liberty to live, act, and serve others according to their beliefs is being unreasonably constricted by the more ghoulish segments of his administration in the name of “choice.”
Like all good Rawlsians, President Obama finds it hard to conceptualize the possibility that private communities and associations might often be better at helping our neighbor in need than governments. Instead, his instinct is to search immediately for a political state-focused solution. If the president invested some time in exploring the concept of social justice, he would discover that its earliest articulators — mostly mid-19th-century Italian Catholic theologians – thought it should be primarily realized through associations and institutions of civil society with the government playing a supportive, but normally background role.
One of the limits of our president’s moral imagination is that he can’t seem to recognize that his opponents aren’t a bunch of narcissistic Randoids. The vast majority of them do in fact believe that we are our brother’s keeper. They also recognize that there are some — even many — problems that markets can’t solve.
But they also don’t think Americans should somehow delegate en masse most of their personal concrete obligations to those in need to elected officials and civil servants. Rather, they understand, as Tocqueville wrote, that “the morals and intelligence of a democratic people would be in as much danger as its commerce and industry if ever a government wholly usurped the place of free associations.”
This, it appears, is something that progressivists will never understand.
— Samuel Gregg is research director at the Acton Institute. He has authored several books including On Ordered Liberty, his prize-winning The Commercial Society, Wilhelm Röpke’s Political Economy, and his 2012 forthcomingBecoming Europe: Economic Decline, Culture, and America’s Future(Encounter Books).