By Barry Rubin
In his speech at Ohio State University, President Barack Obama used the word “together” four times. Yet each time he defined the collective endeavor of Americans as merely that of promoting more government. Thus, while trying to turn American history and even the Constitution into precedents for his goals and policies, Obama actually reverses reality, undermining not only the conservative vision of America but also the historic liberal one.
Normally, a president would speak of the vast array of efforts made “together” to refer—or at least include—non-government activities. That means the actions of voluntarily formed communities, organizations, corporations, charities, religious groups, and trade unions. It is the freedom, energy, and enthusiasm to form such groups that marks American society as unusual in the world.
All those things are actions independent of the government. It was the virtue of American government that it accepted limits on its own power in order to permit the maximum space for the autonomous action of citizens and groups of citizens. After all, democracy is not defined as the ability to come together to serve the state. On one level, all countries require some such service. But on another level this is the philosophy of the modern ideological dictatorship.
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Let’s consider Obama’s four uses of the word “together” to gain better understanding of his ideology:
1, “That’s precisely what the founders left us: the power to adapt to changing times. They left us the keys to a system of self-government – the tool to do big and important things together that we could not possibly do alone. To stretch railroads and electricity and a highway system across a sprawling continent. To educate our people with a system of public schools and land grant colleges, including Ohio State. To care for the sick and the vulnerable, and provide a basic level of protection from falling into abject poverty in the wealthiest nation on Earth. To conquer fascism and disease; to visit the Moon and Mars; to gradually secure our God-given rights for all our citizens, regardless of who they are, what they look like, or who they love.”
Here, Obama cleverly cites cases of consensus government action—the public school system, fighting wars, and the space program–in a misleading way. Two side remarks. First, it is significant that Obama doesn’t say, “To conquer fascism and Communism.” Second, whatever one thinks on the issue, Obama’s claim that gay marriage is a “God-given right” is certainly a theological novelty.
But back to the main point. In other words, because minimal or moderate government has achieved great things, Obama illogically argues that maximum government can achieve even greater things despite the contrary evidence of history, including present-day American history. Today, government doesn’t “stretch” railroads; it blocks oil pipelines; it doesn’t promote agriculture, it refuses to give water to California farmers because of a small fish; it cripples coal mining and pumping petroleum.
It is quite true that land was granted by the government in the mid-nineteenth century to make it possible to build railroads and colleges. But once the land was given, the government stepped entirely out of the picture! Giving one item and then getting out of the way—I’m talking here about creation not regulation—is quite different from the government doing these things itself.
In fact, Obama is here stealing credit from private enterprise and turning American history on its head. The same point applies to “conquer…disease” where Obamacare marks a highly questionable extension of government power to hitherto unimaginable heights.
He continues about providing “a basic level of protection,” which is often called the safety net. But the whole point, of course, is that this idea emerged relatively late in American history and was finally enshrined in the New Deal of the 1930s and afterward. A “basic level of protection,” however, has grown to extraordinary size, far beyond what was envisioned even in the 1960s, to the point that it threatens the sustainability of the economy and of freedoms. We are not talking any more about “abject poverty,” which the American system has made rare. The safety net has been expanded to the point–as in lavish retirement spending on public employees and “poverty” programs that mainly benefit well-paid bureaucrats– that it may be strangling the country.
2. “We, the people, chose to do these things together. Because we know this country cannot accomplish great things if we pursue nothing greater than our own individual ambition.”
This is a fascinating piece of propaganda. He begins by citing the Declaration of Independence—coupling himself with the Founders (because he knows this is his opponents’ main argument) and ending with a refutation of capitalism. He counters “we the people,” (the 99 percent, Democrats, those for strengthening the state) against greedy “individual ambition” (the Republicans, capitalists, those who want to keep individual freedom).
The founding argument of capitalism, originally made by Adam Smith was that individual ambition could be harnessed for maximum economic progress. Few students in America today are taught to understand how this apparent contradiction has produced the world’s most democratic, prosperous, and stable societies. By Obama’s definition, however, a government bureaucrat cannot be greedy or oppressive.
But Obama’s argument can be reversed: We know this country cannot accomplish great things if we excessively limit the ability of individual ambition which has been the motive force of American success. The trick, of course, is that the potential for “individual ambition” must be opened to the maximum number of people. Yet taxes, regulations, and other restrictions block that from taking place.
Moreover, as is typical of Obama, his audience is offered an all or nothing approach. We can either have unbridled government or unbridled individualism. The whole point of American history is the debate over where to find the point of balance, the need for a stronger government than existed in pre-industrial America but not to have a government that was too powerful. Similarly, he continues:
3. “Still, you’ll hear voices that incessantly warn of government as nothing more than some separate, sinister entity that’s the root of all our problems, even as they do their best to gum up the works; or that tyranny always lurks just around the corner. You should reject these voices. Because what they suggest is that our brave, creative, unique experiment in self-rule is just a sham with which we can’t be trusted.”
“Nothing more,” “all,” “tyranny,” such phrases obscure real issues of how much debt, how much regulation, how much government intervention is beneficial for the “unique experiment.” Obama dismisses this argument as a “sham,” as purely phony. So one cannot have such a debate. And that kind of stance—often echoed in the universities and mass media—kills democracy.
Leaving aside the accusation that American citizens are deliberately sabotaging the common good—those who disagree with Obama are thus defined in effect as enemies of the people—the key word is “separate.” Obama wants Americans to believe that government is only the sum total of their efforts together. But that is nonsense. Government is a separate institution with huge power and its own interests and logic.
I want to use an analogy here but to make clear that I don’t think Obama is a Communist or Marxist-Leninist. But it was the concept of Marx and Lenin that the state was merely the tool of the proletariat. Once the revolution took place, the state could be given total power because there was nothing to fear. How could the people repress or hurt the people? The state had no “separate” existence to the extent that it would even, to use Marxist language, “wither away” when ordered to do so by the masses.
Yet the state was not merely the unfailing conveyer belt of the public will. All the things predicted by America’s founders came true in the USSR: the state should be distrusted. The destruction of liberty led to inevitable abuses. The state did become a separate entity, its master not the people but the Communist Party. A privileged elite arose whose behavior was ultimately worse than if Russia had a democratic capitalist revolution. And of course the whole enterprise stagnated and collapsed.
Again, I am not saying this is the same situation as the one Obama favors. But there are important parallels. Contrary to Obama’s trickery on this point, in the “brave, creative, unique experiment in self-rule,” the word “self” here doesn’t mean only rule by the state but self-rule by the individual to the maximum possible extent. That is what made America unique.
4. “We have never been a people who place all our faith in government to solve our problems, nor do we want it to. But we don’t think the government is the source of all our problems, either. Because we understand that this democracy is ours. As citizens, we understand that America is not about what can be done for us. It’s about what can be done by us, together, through the hard and frustrating but absolutely necessary work of self-government.”
This is a straw man argument. The use of the words “never” and “all” is the tip-off here. But what percentage of our problems would Obama attribute to government? Could it be that government has made the economy function worse in the last four and a half years? Might it be possible that there are problems like this in other areas? So might it be conceivable that less government, lower taxes, and less regulation would reduce some problems? Obama is fundamentally dishonest because—unlike other politicians–he cannot and will not cede that there be any merit to his critics’ arguments.
Yet how can one ignore the fact that government is a huge institution with its own interests, privileges, and special interest clients? By the way, this is a novel argument in American politics. If Republican-ruled governments were said to be untrustworthy because they favored big business, Democratic-ruled governments were said to be untrustworthy because they favored trade unions or other constituencies. Distrust of government has always been bipartisan.
Finally, there is one more subtle touch, Obama’s restatement of President John F. Kennedy’s famous 1961 statement, “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” That is on an individual basis and Kennedy was invoking patriotism. Obama reduces this to the idea that America equals government.
To put it another way, Kennedy’s statement was understood to mean that any action–say, citizens’ organizing a charity or educational program to help the poor–helping the country was a good thing; Obama’s that collective action meant helping and strengthening the government.
After giving lip service to saying that Americans should not just ask what “can be done for us,” he then turns to what “can be done by us, together,” which is the “absolutely necessary work of self-government.”
No one doubts that self-government is “absolutely necessary,” the problem is that it is becoming—in Obama’s interpretation—as the sum total of America, the sole center of power. The huge space that the Founders set out for balances has been confined. To Obama, individual liberty is merely “negative liberty.”
In 1925, President Calvin Coolidge said, “The chief business of the American people is business. They are profoundly concerned with buying, selling, investing, and prospering in the world.” Today, Obama has sought to alter that into arguing that the chief business of the American people is government, but that arguably has reached the point where it prevents them from prospering in the world.
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——————– Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His next book, Nazis, Islamists and the Making of the Modern Middle East, written with Wolfgang G. Schwanitz, will be published by Yale University Press in January 2014. His latest book is Israel: An Introduction, also published by Yale. Thirteen of his books can be read and downloaded for free at the website of the GLORIA Center including The Arab States and the Palestine Conflict, The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East and The Truth About Syria. His blog is Rubin Reports. His original articles are published at PJMedia.