President Barack Obama delivered a State of the Union speech last week that, for all of its soaring rhetoric, presented very little beyond a deeply flawed analysis of the American condition.
What stood out most in the speech was not Obama’s assessment of the problems the nation faces — with the exception, perhaps, of his notable dismissal of the most critical of those problems, namely the various rogue nuclear threats and mounting debt. What was most apparent in the speech was the underlying assumption government is not only A solution, but THE solution.
The president is the prototypical statist in that he believes the instrumentality of the state is indispensable to curing society’s ills and is the principal mechanism through which reforms must be made. His is a program, therefore, that relies not on a well-founded faith in the latent energy and creative power of the American people, but rather fiscal sleight-of-hand.
There’s a certain arrogance in all of this. At the heart of the liberal fetish for government is the notion society would be better by following the liberal’s program. Of course, implementing this program requires the force of the state, lest it be subject to the same criticism and objection as lesser ideas. If one possesses THE ANSWER, as President Obama believes he does, then surely it cannot be left up to the individual to choose to accept it or not in the manner one might choose to accept the tenets presented in a book, radio show or newspaper column. One does not choose to engage with, for instance, the IRS or EPA. They engage with you.
Thus we arrive at the mentality behind the SOTU speech, the government-is-the-answer reflexivity on bold display. There was much to criticize in the specifics: the minimum wage proposal ripped straight from the pages of the kindergarten school of economics; the headlong rush into flinging more tax money at “green” projects even as news emerges of the latest debacle, a Michigan electric-car battery plant sitting idle, its workers paid via taxpayer funded grants to play board games. But the most important objection is the one which focuses on the state-centric myopia that framed both the speech and the president’s approach to matters.
Obama listed some weighty and difficult challenges — from unemployment to education — but made the fatal error of assuming government is the way to solve them. He stated for instance, quite rightly, that a high school diploma is critically important to helping secure employment. Who would disagree with the importance of a good education? Yet he managed to forget, or ignore, that many of the most urgent problems in American education today can be traced to its federalization. Obama’s “solutions” to education didn’t involve anything that might actually help produce a more educated generation of American kids, such as a workable voucher system to expand educational opportunities (or perhaps letting the states devise their own solutions), but instead promises to compound the dilemma by increasing federal micromanagement.
It seemed not to matter to the president, and those star-struck by his elocution, what the issue was. Government was offered as the solution to every nit and wiggle in the human condition. Energy production? Requires government programs to get the mix just right. Education? Needs federal government dollars to train those young minds. Housing? Bring in the national government to manage lending, since it did such a stellar job last time. Jobs? Well, how will anyone open a store, produce anything or provide a service without Uncle Sam’s help?
On and on it went. Gravity and photosynthesis are indispensable to a successful society as well. I fully expected the president to announce at any moment his plans for the creation of new federal agencies dedicated to the supervision of those systems.
To President Obama, and others of his political persuasion, government is not simply a mechanism for establishing order in society — it IS society.
Which is why their programs fail, time after time, generation after generation. Society is far too complex to be managed according to utopic design — be it one promulgated by a central elite or the ultra-democratic masses. It requires instead direction framed by cultural inheritance — wisdom accumulated over the centuries shaped by balancing innovation and permanence.
The realization this country is a great deal more than the sum of its government — certainly a great deal more than the presidency — is a preposition that more than anything defines America and should serve as the reference against which any scheme to solve the nation’s problems ought to be based.