Obama’s Elizabeth Warren Moment

Our president’s channeling Elizabeth Warren. Speaking in Roanoke, Obama hit all her government’s-the-reason-we-have-nice things notes. “I’m going to reduce the deficit in a balanced way,” he said. “We’ve already made a trillion dollars’ worth of cuts. We can make another trillion or trillion-two, and what we then do is ask for the wealthy to pay a little bit more.”

Why should the wealthy–who already pay quite a lot, mind you–pay a little bit more?

[B]ecause [the wealthy] want to give something back. They know they didn’t–look, if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own. … I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart. There are a lot of smart people out there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else. Let me tell you something–there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there.

About this, Obama’s right. Lots of very smart people aren’t rich. (I’ll assume that’s what the president means by “successful” and roll with it, while remaining totally aware that there are myriad ways to define “success” that don’t involve accumulated wealth.) Lots of hardworking people aren’t rich, either. Which means getting rich, while often involving both smarts and hard work, depends on other things, too. Such as background, family, networks, opportunities, and just plain luck.

Back to Obama:

If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive.

Again, true. Every successful person in this county benefited from the help of someone. None of us are capable of getting far at all entirely on our own.

The confusion for Obama and his fellow progressives comes in locating that “someone.” Because for Obama, “someone” isn’t friends, family, colleagues. It’s government.

The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together. There are some things, just like fighting fires, we don’t do on our own. I mean, imagine if everybody had their own fire service. That would be a hard way to organize fighting fires.

At some fundamental level, Obama simply doesn’t understand that “we” are not the state. For him, acting together simply is the same thing as legislating, regulating, and taxing. That’s why he can say with a straight face such inanities as his fire service line above. He appears unable to comprehend voluntary, cooperative, non-governmental coordination. The government doesn’t run bookstores, but we don’t each have our own Barnes & Noble or Amazon.com.

And while he’s right that there are some things we probably can’t do without government (or, at least, can’t do as efficiently without government), that class of activities is vanishingly small when compared to all the things Obama wants government to do–and wants you and me to pay for.

The argument against paying more taxes or creating more federal programs is not that we all should keep our money even if it means accomplishing nothing and having no nice things. Rather it’s that if we kept our money and had fewer federal programs, we’d accomplish more and have more nice things. Without the state stifling innovation, hindering entrepreneurs, wasting resources, and crowding out private action, we would get even more done together.

Of course, this doesn’t mean we haven’t each gained something from Obama’s welfare/warfare state. But the fact that we have doesn’t do much to support the president’s call for higher taxes. After all, even an abusive parent can give birthday presents.

There’s a certain class of argument that sounds utterly convincing to those already convinced–and entirely preposterous to those not. Obama’s remarks exemplify it. In order for his argument to get off the ground, Obama has to assume the truth of his conclusions. He asks us to believe that it is only through government that good things happen. He asks to us accept that we’d be helpless without Washington’s officiousness.

Obama wants us to think that we, as free citizens striving to better our own lives and our world, are incapable of the task.

The president hasn’t made an argument so much as he’s demonstrated a failure of the imagination–and a lack of faith in the American people.

Here’s a related video discussion: