by Daniel Flynn
“Did we not bring you into existence?” Socrates imagined the state saying to him should he have attempted to evade its death sentence. “Your father married your mother by our aid and begat you,” officials might have continued. Athens provided for the “education of children, in which you were also trained.” The message? You owe even your life to your government.
Philosophers still debate whether Plato wished readers of the Crito to embrace or reject this total conception of state power. No such ambiguity surrounds Barack Obama’s remarks crediting the success of individuals to the state.
“If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help,” the president told an audience in Roanoke, Virginia last Friday. “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. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business—you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.”
For the businessmen who made all those “roads and bridges” happen through generous tax payments, Obama’s assertion was especially insulting. Isn’t it enough that tax-funded construction projects bear the stamp of the Obama administration rather than the taxpayer funders that the president vilifies? The head of state also credits the state for the spontaneous accomplishments of private citizens.
As the website of the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) website notes, “On March 3, 2009 President Obama made the commitment that all projects funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) will bear a recovery emblem to make it easier for Americans to see which projects are funded by the ARRA. To meet this commitment, FHWA strongly encourages agencies to use the economic recovery signs on all projects funded by the ARRA.” Governments have spent tens of millions of dollars on signs giving the administration credit. But businessmen now must not even take credit for their own businesses.Albert Jay Nock, observing another alarming rise in state power during the 1930s, advanced a conception of the state in polar opposition to this president’s. “It is unfortunately none too well understood that, just as the State has no money of its own, so it has no power of its own,” the former New Republic scribe reasoned in Our Enemy, the State. “All the power it has is what society gives it, plus what it confiscates from time to time on one pretext or another; there is no other source from which State power can be drawn. Therefore every assumption of State power, whether by gift or seizure, leaves society with so much less power; there is never, nor can be, any strengthening of State power without a corresponding and roughly equivalent depletion of social power.”
The words that slipped off the president’s tongue didn’t arrive there via his teleprompter. Seeking to let Barack be Barack, the president’s handlers have unleashed him with note cards in hopes that a more extemporaneous speaking style will inject life into an increasingly pedantic politician. The strategy obviously carries risk.
Unscripted Obama told Joe the Plumber in 2008 that “when you spread the wealth around, it’s good for everybody.” He candidly held during that year’s primaries that working-class whites “get bitter” and “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”
Off-teleprompter Obama always seems to reveal a smug ideologue at odds with the made-for-TV centrist. Campaign by teleprompter strips the president of the energy that catapulted him into the Oval Office four years ago. But it also protects the president from his own instincts, which, when voiced, often deeply offend voters.
The president’s rambling rhetoric in Roanoke said little about American businessmen. It said much about their tormentor.
“Well, then, since you were brought into the world and nurtured and educated by us, can you deny in the first place that you are our child and slave, as your fathers were before you?” Socrates imagined his state captors lecturing him. The philosopher balked at fleeing the state that he had served as a soldier. A creature of Athens became a casualty of it.
The Athenian way isn’t the American way.Daniel Flynn
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