President Obama and the Presumed Irrelevance of Voluntary Social Cooperation

During a recent interview with Douglas Brinkley in Rolling Stone, Barack Obama made the following observation about admirers of Ayn Rand:

Have you ever read Ayn Rand?


What do you think Paul Ryan’s obsession with her work would mean if he were vice president?

Well, you’d have to ask Paul Ryan what that means to him. Ayn Rand is one of those things that a lot of us, when we were 17 or 18 and feeling misunderstood, we’d pick up. Then, as we get older, we realize that a world in which we’re only thinking about ourselves and not thinking about anybody else, in which we’re considering the entire project of developing ourselves as more important than our relationships to other people and making sure that everybody else has opportunity – that that’s a pretty narrow vision. It’s not one that, I think, describes what’s best in America. Unfortunately, it does seem as if sometimes that vision of a “you’re on your own” society has consumed a big chunk of the Republican Party.

Given that Rand was a committed atheist and Ryan is a devout Catholic, and given that Ryan has explicitly distanced himself from Rand’s distinctive political philosophy, one gets the impression that the president doesn’t have a very good grasp of what Ryan actually believes. In fairness, the same is evidently true of Douglas Brinkley. But this exchange is particularly striking in light of Paul Ryan’s recent speech in Cleveland, which included a number of noteworthy passages, e.g.:

I am a proud Republican. Our party does a good job of speaking to the part of the American Dream that involves taking what you’re passionate about and making a successful living from it. 

But part of what makes America great is that when we don’t succeed, we look out for one another through our communities. My party has a vision for making our communities stronger – but we don’t always do a good job of laying out that vision. 

Mitt Romney and I want to change that. Each of us understands the importance of community from experience. I come from a town that’s been hit as hard as any.  A lot of guys I grew up with worked at the GM plant in my hometown, and they lost their jobs when it closed. 

What happened next is the same thing that happens in communities around the country every day. The town pulled together. Our churches and charities and friends and neighbors were there for one another. In textbooks, they call this civil society.  In my own experience, I know it as Janesville, Wisconsin.

Later on, he said:

The short of it is that there has to be a balance – allowing government to act for the common good, while leaving private groups free to do the work that only they can do.  There’s a vast middle ground between the government and the individual.  Our families and our neighborhoods, the groups we join and our places of worship – this is where we live our lives.  They shape our character, give our lives direction, and help make us a self-governing people.

This doesn’t sound like a “you’re on your own society.” Rather, it is a vision in which our shared civic obligations are not exclusively realized through the state. One wonders if President Obama understands the importance of this “vast middle ground between the government and the individual,” and how government can both weaken and strengthen it. 

On a separate note, Douglas Brinkley’s introduction to his interview with the president is a remarkable document. As you read it, I encourage you to keep in mind that Brinkley is a widely-admired scholar. (I’d also recommend reading David Plotz’s 1999 Slate revealing and crisply-written profile of Brinkley.)

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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