Politics & Policy

Obama’s ‘Redistributive Change’ and the Death of Freedom

Beware the International Covenant on Economic, Social & Cultural Rights.

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.

The framers understood that there is no societal good in a government that “must do” for individuals and factions. “Doing” is a zero-sum game. Government does not inherently have anything to give. What it awards you it must seize from me. What it gives one faction it must deny to others. Such an arrangement is inimical to the Constitution’s purpose “to form a more perfect union.” It is, in fact, a prescription for disunion, for a house divided.

Freedom accepts that we are different. The endless variety of life assures that. I had every opportunity to become just as good a basketball player as Michael Jordan, but he has natural gifts and worked harder. If we played a hundred times, he would whip me a hundred times by about 500 points. No Change, no matter how rapturously framed, could alter that result without chaining him to the bench and rendering the game no longer recognizable as basketball. That would be perversion, not justice.

Yet, this is just what Obama’s “economic justice” envisions: that the government can hamstring Michael Jordan and give me enough freebies that, despite his talent and industry, he can only play me to a tie, destroying his incentive to excel while the Bulls go out of business, no longer able to afford even my mediocrity. Naturally, such an absurd system requires change. Redistribution smothers the freedom our Constitution is designed to foster. It is therefore antithetical to our law.

Obama knows this. Consequently, as he said in 2001, he is not surprised that courts saddled with such a Constitution have not been a useful route to economic justice. What is surprising, at least at first blush, is that Obama doesn’t fret too much about that. As a matter of fact, in his estimation, the civil rights movement was too “court focused.”

This is because Obama is a true revolutionary. It’s not that he doesn’t want socialist economic policies; he does. And it’s not that he doesn’t think the courts should impose “economic justice” just as the Warren Court imposed “social justice”; again, he does. It’s that he believes the Warren era reliance on the judiciary as principal change agent led to the atrophy of more forceful and promising methods: namely, “the political and community organizing and activities on the ground that are able to put together the actual coalition of powers through which you bring about redistributive change.”

Political and community organizing activities on the ground? Think of ACORN, Obama’s old comrades at the Association of Community Organizers for Reform Now: engaged in massive (often fraudulent) voter-registration efforts to over-represent society’s bottom-dwellers; handing Leftist politicians a ready-to-enact legislative agenda of confiscatory taxes, laws forcing banks to make home-loans to unqualified borrowers, “living wage” laws that kill jobs, corporate “exit visas” to trap businesses in urban areas enervated by government’s central planning, “sustainable development” regulations to redistribute wealth from the suburbs to the cities, global poverty relief to redistribute wealth from American citizens to the third-world dictators, and Leftist political indoctrination in the public schools.


Obama, the Leftist community organizer schooled in the radical methods of Saul Alinsky, recognizes that in the current legal landscape legislation will be necessary to impose the injustice he calls “economic justice.” Lawmakers needn’t do all the work. Politically unaccountable judges, many favorably predisposed toward Leftist schemes, can be a force multiplier. First, however, they must be given just enough legislative license.

As luck would have it, a President Obama may be well positioned to give that license at the very start of his term, without the political risk inherent in proposing his own detailed “economic justice” program. The solution is ready to hand: all it needs is an election-day tide that swells the Democrats’ Senate majority.

In 1966, with key help from the Soviet Union, the United Nations began promoting a monstrosity of a treaty known as the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). It is chockablock with exactly the things Obama would say government must do on your behalf: provide housing, clothing, education, health care, employment, a living wage that accounts for comparative worth (meaning the government, under the guise of preventing discrimination, determines what you are paid), limited labor hours, paid vacation and holidays, paid parental leave, nearly unrestricted trade unionization, social security (including “social insurance”), “equitable distribution of world food supplies in relation to need,” and so on.

This economic-justice compact was so patently socialist that, even at the height of his Great Society and War on Poverty, President Lyndon Johnson declined to sign it. So did Presidents Nixon and Ford. But alas, there is always Jimmy Carter. Thirty years ago, he signed the ICESCR, but it has languished ever since, never ratified. President Clinton lauded the treaty but shrank from prodding the senate, where staunch Republican opposition made the required two-thirds approval margin a pipedream.

Obama, by contrast, expects to have the wind at his back, at least for a time. Gone is the Republican Congress of the Clinton years. Despite their appalling performance and historically low approval ratings, cocky Democrats expect to pad their congressional majorities. They anticipate inching close to 60 seats, or beyond. With an assist from the usual GOP moderates — who’d no doubt be anxious to join a charismatic new president in a bipartisan effort to “improve America’s image in the world” — the 67 votes needed for ratification could be attainable.

The Constitution stipulates that, once ratified, a treaty becomes the supreme law of the land. No longer would Obama need to worry about the “essential constraints” that relegate our fundamental law to “a charter of negative liberties.” Federal judges would now be unleashed to direct the redistributions necessary to ensure a “living wage” and the ICESCR’s remaining laundry list of economic rights. Congressional Democrats, egged on by ACORN and its hard Left allies, would craft legislation to further codify, explain and expand on them.

Change will have arrived. At long last we’ll have realized Obama’s ideal of economic justice. But freedom, the ideal that makes America America, will have perished.

National Review’s Andrew C. McCarthy chairs the FDD’s Center for Law & Counterterrorism and is the author of Willful Blindness: A Memoir of the Jihad (Encounter Books 2008).


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