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.