In his Second Inaugural, Abraham Lincoln promised “malice toward none and charity towards all.” Barack Obama’s recent kick-off to his second term reveals our President as an impatient man. Having won the hearts and minds – or at least the votes – of 51.1% of the voters, he sorely wishes that the rest of us would get out of the way. Whatever Mitt Romney may have intended with his confusing remarks about the “47%,” the hand that the President offered to the 49% came in the form of a fist.

It seems clear that the second term is destined for Big Things. There are to be no real spending cuts. Entitlement reform is not on the table. The tax increases that the President campaigned on turn out to have been little more than earnest money. Bill Clinton thought that the Era of Big Government was over. Barack Obama thinks that is has only begun.

The speech was, in many respects, the perfect mess, deeply reflecting one of the fundamental flaws of the American left – it’s unfettered hubris. There are at least three ways in which the speech was dipped in Progressives’ mistaken belief that they are capable of remaking the world.

First, the President emphasized his belief that freedom is a creation of the state. “[P]reserving our individual freedoms,” he said, “ultimately requires collective action.”

On a superficial level, this is an unexceptional truism. Almost all of us agree that there are certain core services that only government can provide. No one, to use a few examples, is calling for disbanding the army, abandoning the Interstate or shuttering public schools. No one is even calling for dismantling a state provided safety net.

What is at stake in our politics is the extent to which government ought to order our daily lives. Should the state occupy a much larger portion of our economy than it has in the past? Do we want to live in the world occupied by the Obama campaign’s fictional “Julia” in which the state assists and controls – the two are not readily separated – much of our lives. Are we best served by a government that creates the condition for private initiative or one that increasingly directs it?

Conservatives answer these questions in the negative, not because we hate the government, but because of modesty about what any single institution can accomplish. A government that is entrusted to preserve your freedom and prosperity is just as likely to destroy them.

Second, the speech is suffused with the insidious notion that government – and government alone - is “what we do together.” Building one of his beloved straw men, the President juxtaposed an ever expanding state with a society of atomistic individuals in which the Devil is free to take the hindmost and society is reduced to the war of all against all.

This is, of course, nonsense. Government action is what some of us decide we all must do. It is one way that we act together. It is hardly the only way.

Indeed, almost all forms of private action are taken by persons acting together. Businesses are made up  of persons who enter into voluntary associations with other persons to provide and obtain goods and services. Charities, churches, neighborhood organizations and countless other voluntary associations are all ways in which we “do things together.”

Conservatives seek to empower these “alternative” sources of authority because a diverse and rich civil society maximizes human creativity and limits the scope of human perfidy. When “We, the People” becomes synonymous with “We, the Government,” both are diminished.

Finally, while the speech praises our founding principles, it also seeks to subvert them in the guise of “progress” and “changing” with the “times.” The United States is distinctive among western democracies for its suspicion of government authority and the traditional belief that state power must be rigorously cabined. As one commentator has put it, we have – until relatively recently – seen  government as an island of authority in a sea of liberty as opposed to restricting liberty to certain private matters carved out against otherwise unfettered state authority. Not our President. 

We will now turn to heated debates about entitlements, taxes, health care and a variety of other issues. But, as conservatives, we do well to remember that these particular disputes are rooted in disagreements about first principles. If nothing else, the President’s speech reminded us of the fundamentals.


Rick Esenberg is the founder and current President and General Counsel of the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty.