Identity and the State

President Obama made headlines recently for a speech in which he emphasized the societal foundation of any person's success.  Unfortunately for him, though I believe revealingly, he fell victim to the soundbite era: "If you’ve got a business - you didn’t build that.  Somebody else made that happen."

"And Mr. President, if you become the president, who made that happen?"  This would be a weak question: I believe that Mr. Obama's strongly stated beliefs originate in his own experience, that of accepting and working in the machine.  I suspect his irritation - at "guns and religion", at those challenging ACORN and other interest groups, at the steadfast unwillingness of the American people to give in to his vision - is honest, that it is the bafflement of one who has accepted a view of the world and found it not held as widely as he expected.

On a superficial level, the President's viewpoint is attractive and reasonable.  It contains some idea of a community, working together, holding to a common good; it presents some echo of the polis which, idealized by Plato and Aristotle and Cicero (if in different ways), resounds through the centuries of Western history and still informs the world today.

But Mr. Obama's view has a weak point: a crisis of mis-identification, or at the very least a crucial identification which he has failed to convince the United States' people is either crucial or a true identity - and perhaps more damningly, he has failed to understand that the point is still under debate.

For Mr. Obama, as for much of the academic, legal, and political elite he has grown to belong to,  the people, and specifically the will of the people, is identified with the government instituted by the people.  He does not follow the earlier understanding, where the government was the representative of the people; or even the older idea that the government stands above the people (by breeding or divine will - or both) and is therefore responsible for them.  A representative who represents poorly can be changed.  A father, judge, or a commander, held up as such by the thinnest string of theory or tradition, can be called to account and shamed - or deposed.

Instead in this modern conception, the government cannot be held in check by theories.  A government defined as "the people's will" simply by the fact of its existing as the government has nothing that can be called up against it except natural or divine law, and those having been busily undermined in the name of "reason" and "tolerance" and "relative morality" because everything originates with the people's will - which is, as we already found, simply the government.

I believe President Obama is confused by backlash against his policies.  As the chief executive, he appears is the supreme embodiment of the popular will which is to be enshrined, and he has been busily enacting all the policies he knows are best.  The fact that law and tradition stand in his way is not to be considered an obstacle, in his view: laws change.  In the President's view, I suspect reality changes.  He does not understand, does not know what to do with, a people who believe in lasting truths, in an actual rule of law because it is the law, in not a good or good policy or today's best option but in the Good.

Yet this philosophical confusion is not really the most damning indictment of his speech and his policies.  After all, if he is right - that is to say, if my speculations about Mr. Obama's worldview are correct, and that worldview is itself factual - then he is doing the right thing, and is merely a poor politician, or at least a tactless one.

The worst problem with his attempted solutions is that even on his own terms, it ends up either backwards or tyrannical.  If we take the more positive view, we stop to ask him who these people were that helped.  Certainly, a state of peace is maintained by the government, the servants of the people: the soldiers, police, road crews, and so forth.  But these are for maintenance only.  The next question leads us to the practical problem faced by these bureaucratic-faced dreamers: who takes us beyond subsistence, and who pays the ones who help us to subsist.  The awkward fact that President Obama has yet to acknowledge is that it is the successful men - the Mr. Romneys and Mr. Gateses and, yes, Mr. Obamas of the world - who help the rest of us: by paying outsize shares of taxes, by hiring and training workers, by providing necessities and comforts and then even luxuries.

This puts us in their debt: it is not right to go demanding that "the rich" pay "their fair share" when they already pay, relatively speaking, that and more; when they not only provide those moneys to the government but in the private sectors hire and pay us who are not so wealthy - and to return to the public arena they largely, for good or ill, provide our government from their number.  It may happen, in this day or in a time of war or or stress, that we need not only a normal contribution from these men but an unusual one: but justice demands that, even if we ask it, we ask it - however formally and with whatever force of law behind it - recognizing that we take from them for a common good or need, and not as if demanding a debt owed to us personally.

This is the charitable view: that President Obama, used to seeing so much given out regularly, has forgotten it is given, and sees it only as taken and that by right.

The uncharitable view - which I hesitate to ascribe to him, but you will see argued by others, I have no doubt - is one that reduces to serfdom any private person who is not himself an agent of the government.  More than mere forgetfulness, or blowing on some wind of the age, this would assert that the government has the right and duty to demand whatever is "necessary" - and has forgotten the older theories of reciprocal duties, so that now all is owed to the government, and the government's dole is charity.  And here we find the sinister descendant of what I mentioned above as Mr. Obama's probable political philosophy: we observe that the government has become the State, and the Will of the People, and the actual people reduced to so many resources to be commanded to produce.  No doubt Mr. Obama considers his a benevolent guidance, but he gives no indication that he sees any right of anyone to disagree with that guidance.

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