How Progressives Use False Dichotomies to Expand Government

Some people find Barack Obama inspirational. I do not. Unfortunately, charisma is not a proposition with which you can argue. It is a personal trait that has almost nothing to do with a man’s beliefs or intentions, and yet in democratic politics it seems to carry more weight than either. Therefore, I feel fairly confident that Senator Obama will be President Obama come 2009. Nonetheless, I think Mr. Obama’s commencement address delivered today at Wesleyan University should provide cause for concern to anyone who values privacy and personal autonomy. A transcript of the speech is available here, and you should read it to form your own opinion both as to the strength of Obama’s rhetorical skills and the quality of his vision for the country. If you want to know what’s wrong with both, you can continue below.

I’ll start where Obama does, with heroism. Barack does not tell us what he considers a heroic action, but he does tell us who he considers a hero from which we might reasonably extrapolate the underlying definition. This is apparently why Mr. Obama admires Ted Kennedy:

It is rare in this country of ours that a person exists who has touched the lives of nearly every single American without many of us even realizing it. And yet, because of Ted Kennedy, millions of children can see a doctor when they get sick. Mothers and fathers can leave work to spend time with their newborns. Working Americans are paid higher wages, and compensated for overtime, and can keep their health insurance when they change jobs. They are protected from discrimination in the workplace, and those who are born with disabilities can still get an education, and health care, and fair treatment on the job. Our schools are stronger and our colleges are filled with more Americans who can afford it. And I have a feeling that Ted Kennedy is not done just yet.

These are some of the more notable events from the life of Ted Kennedy according to Wikipedia:

  • Expelled from Harvard for cheating on a Spanish exam.
  • Obtained a Law degree from the University of Virginia.
  • Was elected to the Senate in a special election in 1962 after his brother vacated the seat for the presidency.
  • Survived a plane crash.
  • Saw his brothers assassinated.
  • Killed a woman.
  • Lost a presidential bid to Jimmy Carter.
  • Opposed abortion.
  • Supported abortion.
  • Made immigration easier.
  • Opposed the right to own a firearm.
  • Voted against the most recent war in Iraq.
  • Co-wrote No Child Left Behind.
  • Supported same-sex marriage.
  • Raised the minimum wage.

To be fair, some of these events are undeniably traumatic, but I’m having trouble reconciling Obama’s view with the biographical portrait painted by Wikipedia. I am certain that the recovering from the injuries sustained in a plane crash is a long and painful process. I might call that heroic. Nothing else, however, comes close. Holding an opinion and voting on legislation is not heroic. If you’re a senator, it is your job. Taking and spending other people’s money against their will is not heroic. Being directly responsible for the death of innocent people is not heroic.

Either Mr. Obama is an incredibly poor judge of character, or we are speaking completely different languages that sound exactly the same. I’d trust him even less in the latter case, and unfortunately, based on some of his other statements, I’d say that is probably where we are.

Barack Obama doesn’t just love Ted Kennedy, he also loves his brother, John, and uses him to help further flesh out his conception of heroism. He borrows JFK’s most famous and most dangerous rhetorical construct: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” I wish I could say that this was completely backwards, and that it was just a momentary lapse into dyslexia that could be easily corrected in a press release. However, even the converse is incorrect. The government is rightly seen as neither benefactor or mendicant. It is a necessary evil that should be restrained as much as possible; hopefully to the point where it intrudes upon your conscience rarely, and your life even less. Yet big government politicians of all stripes and colors constantly use this sort of false dichotomy to justify the expansion of state power into realms where has no place. Apparently, without the beneficent Sen. Kennedy, Americans would be poor, uneducated, sickly creatures doomed to a short, painful, and narrow existence. Either the government pays for medical treatment, or we all die alone in the streets. Either the government pays for schools, or we all remain illiterate. Either government mandates wage levels, or we all work for free and beg for food from our employers.

Obama’s speech is perhaps even more galling as he has the temerity to both deny and espouse the dichotomies of social and economic life in the space of a few sentences. First, the proper sentiment:

I bring this up because today, you are about to enter a world that makes it easy to get caught up in the notion that there are actually two different stories at work in our lives.

The first is the story of our everyday cares and concerns – the responsibilities we have to our jobs and our families – the bustle and busyness of what happens in our own life. And the second is the story of what happens in the life of our country – of what happens in the wider world. It’s the story you see when you catch a glimpse of the day’s headlines or turn on the news at night – a story of big challenges like war and recession; hunger and climate change; injustice and inequality. It’s a story that can sometimes seem distant and separate from our own – a destiny to be shaped by forces beyond our control.And yet, the history of this nation tells us this isn’t so. It tells us that we are a people whose destiny has never been written for us, but by us – by generations of men and women, young and old, who have always believed that their story and the American story are not separate, but shared. And for more than two centuries, they have served this country in ways that have forever enriched both.

Then, the hypocritical condemnation of private hopes and dreams:

Each of you will have the chance to make your own discovery in the years to come. And I say “chance” because you won’t have to take it. There’s no community service requirement in the real world; no one forcing you to care. You can take your diploma, walk off this stage, and chase only after the big house and the nice suits and all the other things that our money culture says you should by. You can choose to narrow your concerns and live your life in a way that tries to keep your story separate from America’s.

But I hope you don’t. Not because you have an obligation to those who are less fortunate, though you do have that obligation. Not because you have a debt to all those who helped you get here, though you do have that debt.It’s because you have an obligation to yourself. Because our individual salvation depends on collective salvation. Because thinking only about yourself, fulfilling your immediate wants and needs, betrays a poverty of ambition. Because it’s only when you hitch your wagon to something larger than yourself that you realize your true potential and discover the role you’ll play in writing the next great chapter in America’s story.

So, which is it Barack? Are all of us engaged in voluntary exchange benefiting ourselves, maximizing prosperity and social well-being, or are only those who use the coercive apparatus of the state to extract resources unwillingly from the productive sector to support us and feed our vanity deserving of the title of public servants? I’m disappointed, but I’m not confused. You are a dangerous man.



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