Barack Obama and the Politics of Cynicism

Barack Obama said many wonderful things in his inauguration address, and he said them very well. Ultimately, however, Obama offers the message that economic liberty must be forcibly restrained because free-market principles no longer apply.

Obama calls his opponents cynics. What is cynicism, and which side exhibits it? Obama uses the term basically to mean a nay-sayer. The modern term but loosely connects to its Greek roots; Oxford’s dictionary defines a cynic by today’s usage: “A person disposed to rail or find fault; now usually: One who shows a disposition to disbelieve in the sincerity or goodness of human motives and actions, and is wont to express this by sneers and sarcasm; a sneering fault finder.”

Obviously merely finding fault is not cynicism; anyone who takes any position whatsoever necessarily finds fault with the other side. Instead, cynicism is faulting others’ positions or motives without good reason, or faulting mankind as such though no such conclusion is warranted; it is substituting the sneer for the argument. So what does Obama have to say about cynicism?

Obama complains about “worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics”; he says “the time has come to set aside childish things.” He leaves his meaning obscure, but clearly he’s setting up somebody for a fall.

Obama then offers due praise to the American spirit:

[I]t has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things — some celebrated, but more often men and women obscure in their labor — who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom. … We remain the most prosperous, powerful nation on Earth. Our workers are no less productive than when this crisis began. Our minds are no less inventive, our goods and services no less needed than they were last week or last month or last year. Our capacity remains undiminished.

He then summarizes his ambitious goals:

The state of our economy calls for action: bold and swift. And we will act not only to create new jobs but to lay a new foundation for growth.

We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together.

We will restore science to its rightful place and wield technology’s wonders to raise health care’s quality… and lower its costs.

We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age.

Obama’s vision for the federal government is ambitious. He wants the federal government to aggressively fund not only transportation infrastructure, but communications, scientific investigation, health care, energy production, and education. Later he says the federal government should also help people find jobs and prepare for retirement. The scope of this federal control of the economy is breathtaking. Though he invokes the spirit of the Founders, the sort of federal government that Obama promotes bears little resemblance to the government instituted by the Founders, the purpose of which is to defend our “unalienable Rights” to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Far from endorsing a free market, Obama instead lauds the “watchful eye” of the federal government. This is not merely the eye of a “night watchman” who guards against force and fraud and helps resolve disputes peaceably. That sort of watch protects a free market. Instead, Obama proposes a “watchful eye” that observes — and controls — how people spend large fractions of their money, which corporations receive federal funding, how individuals and companies conduct business, and how individuals receive health care and other basic services. It is a Watchful Eye with a far and penetrating gaze.

Here is the segment in which Obama discusses his Watchful Eye and the alleged cynicism of those who do not care to be so watched:

Now, there are some who question the scale of our ambitions, who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans. Their memories are short, for they have forgotten what this country has already done, what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose and necessity to courage.

What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them, that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long, no longer apply.

The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works, whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified.

Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end.

And those of us who manage the public’s dollars will be held to account, to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day, because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.

Nor is the question before us whether the market is a force for good or ill. Its power to generate wealth and expand freedom is unmatched.

But this crisis has reminded us that without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control. The nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous.

Notably, Obama completely ignores the fundamental cause of our economic troubles: a network of federal controls that promoted risky loans. In other words, the cause of the problem was the federal government’s “watchful eye,” yet Obama considers it the only solution.

Obama’s passage echoes the writings of Jim Wallis, who preaches “progressive” religion:

One could say that people of faith should endorse a “limited” view of government. This is not the old conservative proposal for small government, sometimes cynically argued in order to reduce the public sector’s ability to counter the power of the wealthy and ensure more fairness and balance in a society. But neither is it an argument for big government that usurps more and more control in a society and puts in jeopardy both individual rights and countervailing powers to the state. Clearly, the answer to the endless left-right debate is neither small government nor big government, but rather effective, smart, and good government.

Obama (following Wallis) is right about one thing: the central issue is not about small versus big government. The central issue is about whether government protects or violates individual rights. If a large number of citizens roam the countryside victimizing innocents, government must exert considerable force stopping them. If a foreign aggressor threatens to destroy us or take us over, government must grow to a size necessary to stop the threat. In all cases, it is the proper job of government to protect us from force and fraud and oversee the peaceable resolution of disputes. That is, it is the proper job of government to protect our rights, whatever size of government that requires.

Central to liberty is the right to use one’s own wealth and resources as one deems best. We have the right to interact with each other on a voluntary basis, rather than by force. We have the right to exchange and cooperate to mutual advantage. We have the right to volunteer our services or donate our wealth as we see fit. We have a basic, fundamental human right to live in economic liberty. The term for such a socio-economic system, in which the rights of each person are consistently upheld, is capitalism, characterized by the free market.

Notice that Obama does not praise a “free market,” but a market under the federal government’s Watchful Eye. Obama does not endorse economic liberty, free markets, or individual rights in the economic sphere. He endorses the massive, forced redistribution of wealth by politicians and bureaucrats. He endorses far-reaching economic controls by the same. His vision of the federal government is not one that protects individual rights in the economic sphere, but one that aggressively violates them.

Yet Obama, like Wallis, holds that no principles are necessary in the economic sphere. True, Obama praises the “old” virtues of “honesty and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism.” But these can remain sufficiently vague so as not to challenge the propriety of the Watchful Eye.

To Obama, anyone who upholds government as the defender of economic liberty must be dogmatic, childish, cynical, detached from reality, and “stale” in their arguments. Obama’s alternative is a pragmatic appeal to government that “works” to oversee the economy. But this raises several questions. If economic liberty is a dogma, then what is it that Obama advocates? Who is to determine whether the government is “working?” For whom is it “working?” How can a government “work” to violate individual rights without straying from justice and prosperity? How can a government that violates economic rights protect rights generally?

Theory and fact, ideology and history demonstrate that economic liberty promotes justice and prosperity, while political controls promote the opposite. Obama’s memory seems to have shut out practically all of the 20th Century. Those who argue that federally-controlled medicine wouldn’t work (to take but one example) do not embrace cynicism: they embrace reality.

So who here is the true cynic?

Advocates of economic liberty hold that each individual properly lives his own life and pursues his own ends, consonant with the rights of others. Such advocates hold that, when people are free from force and fraud, they will join together on a voluntary basis to create a just, prosperous, and peaceful society. This view is the opposite of cynicism: it is a view rooted in the belief that people tend to do a good job leading their own lives and cooperating with others, and that the best society is a free one.

Obama, on the other hand, unleashes a string of personal attacks against the defenders of economic liberty. He implies that a government that protects individual rights is inadequate for preserving the “greatness of our nation.” He holds that people, if left to their own choices in a system of economic liberty, will tend to do the wrong thing. What people need is not liberty, by Obama’s view, but the guidance of a Watchful Eye. He holds that people must be watched — and controlled — by federal politicians and bureaucrats.

I can imagine no more cynical view than that.

One thought on “Barack Obama and the Politics of Cynicism”

  1. The watchful eye is a very scary concept, along the same lines as Big Brother is Watching You.

    I suppose that they don’t teach 1984 in high schools anymore. I know my daughter told me that her teachers said that it was not necessary since the fall of the Soviet Union. Of course, that was not the point of the story . . .

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