President Obama’s inauguration speech was a giant dollop of collectivist nonsense.
Apparently determined to seize the Constitution from conservatives, the president spent much of his address making pointed references to the Founding Fathers and our history. America’s success, he declared, sprang not from our individual freedoms, but from a peculiar kind of collectivism:
“[W]e have always understood that when times change, so must we; that fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges; that preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action. For the American people can no more meet the demands of today’s world by acting alone than American soldiers could have met the forces of fascism or communism with muskets and militias. No single person can train all the math and science teachers we’ll need to equip our children for the future, or build the roads and networks and research labs that will bring new jobs and businesses to our shores. Now, more than ever, we must do these things together, as one nation, and one people.”
It goes without saying that Americans have been successful because they’ve worked together. No person is a bubble. We can’t live contently by ourselves, let alone build a house or a space shuttle.
But by “do these things together,” the president doesn’t mean a family raising a child or a business creating a product. He means empowering government. He’s justifying the welfare state by citing our history of common purpose. Americans cooperated to build commercial steam engines, so let’s throw more money at the Department of Transportation.
It’s a bizarre argument, and a relatively new one for the left. Progressives used to justify government action by calling the Constitution outdated. Left-wing intellectuals like Herbert Croly said we needed to unmoor ourselves from our historical values and usher in a grand age of statist intervention. Today’s liberals embrace our history and then claim it contains a blueprint for collectivism.
They’re wrong. Our history is filled not with huge government interventions (although those are there), but with voluntary associations. Americans have come together not because of some national will, but because they wanted to create, think, talk, and build, and they needed each other to do it. For all of James Madison’s fretting about factions, independent organizations, often in disagreement with each other, have been the stars in our country’s constellation.
Alexis de Tocqueville noticed this when he came to the United States in 1831. America, he observed in his seminal work Democracy in America, was a land of associations. “They have not only commercial and manufacturing companies, in which all take part,” he wrote, “but associations of a thousand other kinds, religious, moral, serious, futile, general or restricted, enormous or diminutive. The Americans make associations to give entertainments, to found seminaries, to build inns, to construct churches, to diffuse books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they found hospitals, prisons, and schools.”
In this way, America was an entirely different nation than its European cousins: “Wherever at the head of some new undertaking you see the government in France, or a man of rank in England, in the United States you will be sure to find an association.”
And unlike the French, Tocqueville drew a line between voluntary associations and the federal government. Addressing the concern that citizens become disempowered in a democracy, he wrote of his fellow Frenchmen:
“I am aware that many of my countrymen are not in the least embarrassed by this difficulty. They contend that the more enfeebled and incompetent the citizens become, the more able and active the government ought to be rendered in order that society at large may execute what individuals can no longer accomplish. They believe this answers the whole difficulty, but I think they are mistaken.” (Emphasis added.)
That dangerous contention is shared by our president. If Tocqueville were to travel through a wormhole and hear Obama’s inauguration speech, it would send him staggering to the history books to research how France successfully invaded America.
Instead he would find a gradual expansion of government that’s blurred his line between associations and the state, culminating in a president who thinks government overreach is a form of national cooperation. For Obama, the associations that “build inns,” to use one of Tocqueville’s examples, mesh with the federal government that demands innkeepers obtain permits to serve alcohol. The state is no longer a restrained protector of our freedoms. It’s just another association, a harmless expression of the people. To believe that is to abandon skepticism of domestic government power. Which, of course, is exactly what the left wants.
What happens when power is shifted from voluntary associations to big government? Tocqueville issued this dystopian warning:
It is easy to foresee that the time is drawing near when man will be less and less able to produce, by himself alone, the commonest necessaries of life. The task of the governing power will therefore perpetually increase, and its very efforts will extend it every day. The more it stands in the place of associations, the more will individuals, losing the notion of combining together, require its assistance: these are causes and effects that unceasingly create each other. Will the administration of the country ultimately assume the management of all the manufactures which no single citizen is able to carry on? And if a time at length arrives when, in consequence of the extreme subdivision of landed property, the soil is split into an infinite number of parcels, so that it can be cultivated only by companies of tillers will it be necessary that the head of the government should leave the helm of state to follow the plow? The morals and the intelligence of a democratic people would be as much endangered as its business and manufactures if the government ever wholly usurped the place of private companies. Feelings and opinions are recruited, the heart is enlarged, and the human mind is developed only by the reciprocal influence of men upon one another.
The president can rationalize big government all he wants. But he can’t pretend it’s the same as the cooperation that made us great. His ideal America, in which the benevolent federal government solves all our problems, is what Tocqueville feared most.
And besides, it’s just so…French.