Comments and observations on social and political trends and events.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

PJ Media » What’s the Matter with Obama’s Kansas Speech?

I like Neoneocon's analysis of Obama's recent speech on PJ Media » What’s the Matter with Obama’s Kansas Speech?

For me a telling phrase in Obama's speech is this one, especially the last sentence.

There is a certain crowd in Washington who, for the last few decades, have said, let's respond to this economic challenge with the same old tune. "The market will take care of everything," they tell us. If we just cut more regulations and cut more taxes -- especially for the wealthy -- our economy will grow stronger. Sure, they say, there will be winners and losers. But if the winners do really well, then jobs and prosperity will eventually trickle down to everybody else. And, they argue, even if prosperity doesn't trickle down, well, that's the price of liberty.
Now, it's a simple theory. And we have to admit, it's one that speaks to our rugged individualism and our healthy skepticism of too much government. That's in America's DNA. And that theory fits well on a bumper sticker. (Laughter.) But here's the problem: It doesn't work. It has never worked.
Should we really be so surprised by his comment? I ask this because I recall coming across a similar sentiment when helping my daughters with the Social Studies homework when they were in middle school more than ten years ago. I recall reading in their textbook how FDR’s New Deal policies saved capitalism from its own excesses and continue to do so. Obama is just touting the same line of thinking. (For a contrary -- and I think more plausible -- explanation of what caused the Great Depression and our current economic woes I recommend checking out the Ludwig von Mises Institute for the Austrian school of economics perspective.)

Getting back to Neoneocon’s article I would take a somewhat different angle. She correctly identifies that “Obama repeatedly mentioned this goal of fairness while blurring or ignoring the all-important distinction between equality of opportunity and equality of outcome as a measure of that fairness.” While this is indeed a valid distinction fairness also masks an inherent fuzziness that works to the advantage of (to use one of Obama’s favorite phrases) those who want to expand the concept of fairness to suit their agenda. I would argue that the concept of individual rights gets forgotten in this line of argument. We can argue forever over which definition of fairness we use unless we have a valid concept of individual rights to ground this argument and to settle disagreements over what is “fair.”

I’ll admit that the Left has successfully eroded or expanded the idea of individual rights to justify their desired enlarged of the role of government but it took some mighty verbal acrobatics to do it. For a good discussion of how FDR did this check out NeverEnough: America’s Limitless Welfare State by William Voegeli. However if we get sucked into debating definitions of fairness we have already lost the intellectual fight. With individual rights there is some objective standard to which we can repair.

Fairness, like a magician’s sleight of hand, gets us to shift our focus away from the conditions necessary for each individual to live freely and to pursue happiness to the relationship between individuals. In other words Obama and his supporters substitute the concept of individual rights which has an objective basis (if formed properly) to fairness, which can mean whatever one wants it to be. I think this is precisely their motive.

While fairness is a valid concept on the social level in terms of how people treat each other in a non-legal context elevating fairness to trump rights and to be a governing political principle is a path fraught with peril.

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