Blaise Pascal, PenseĆ© 347: “Man is but a reed, the most feeble thing in nature; but he is a thinking reed. The entire universe need not arm itself to crush him. A vapor, a drop of water suffices to kill him. But, if the universe were to crush him, man would still be more noble than that which killed him, because he knows that he dies and the advantage which the universe has over him; the universe knows nothing of this. All our dignity consists, then, in thought. By it we must elevate ourselves, and not by space and time which we cannot fill. Let us endeavor, then, to think well; this is the principle of morality.”

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

"You Didn't Build That" and Why I'm Voting Republican

In a previous blog, I said that Obama's "You didn't build that" comment had been distorted, somewhat taken out of context, by the Republicans. I was wrong. I recant. [I had mixed it up with another blooper, Obama's statement that the private sector was doing just fine: see below.] No, when Obama said "You didn't build that," with regard to any businessman, he meant it. And it was just as bad and just as diagnostic as the Republicans make it out to be. Here is the clip with some analysis (yes, I know, it's Fox) which I think is accurate. But watch Obama's entire statement, listen to pundits, and see what you think:

Krauthammer nails it.

Of course people get help from the government. Of course the infrastructure that the government largely manages makes business possible. But it is just as accurate to say that businesses large and small provide a living--and all the taxes--that make government possible. It's a complex world. We need government, obviously. I don't want to fly without the FAA or eat a steak without the FDA. And obviously, we need a thriving private sector. It's absurd to put all the emphasis in one place, and when political campaigns do that, they are just setting up straw men and they know it.

So why do the Democrats worry me? Starting in 2008, we left Democratic politics as usual. Obama does not just stand for an extra measure of the Democratic welfare state, but for a philosophy that turns government into an idol, the god in charge of human happiness. The Democrats really do think that we belong to the government, instead of the government to us, and especially, that it is government which gives our lives meaning. The government is the key to our happiness. It provides hope and change--a virtual religious transformation. This is not the Democratic party of my youth that was mainly concerned with strong national defense and giving labor an even break. It is not a party that thinks government has an important role to play in national well-being. Instead, it is a party that thinks it has the fundamental role to play in enabling us to be happy.

The essence of progressivism is that there is no aspect of human life that cannot be addressed and improved by the right government policy. Life will get better and better as our policies get better and better and we asymptotically approach perfection.

If you do not think this is true, all I can say is, watch the convention speeches. That's how I read them, you may read them differently.

I have come to believe that this election is not just about bigger government versus individualism. It is about the place we give government in our lives at the metaphysical level. Can government really do, whatever its policies, what progressives think it can do? (And the label "progressive" means progression forever--no end to it.) I don't think so, and I suspect it corrupts community at the local level by assuming a national answer.

Since meaning in any individual's life comes out of our relationship with others, this election is also about national government versus local civil society. As de Tocqueville pointed out early on, much of America's strength derived from it's culture of thriving civic groups and organizations. My father's life was taken up with membership in the Lutheran Church, the Lion's club, a bowling league, and membership in the Verona Hills Country Club, which we just called "the golf course." People derived meaning in their lives from participation in many different groups, which in one way or another led back to civic involvement and service to the community. The main thing that any person builds is not a business--it's a life. I don't think that any government ought to see itself as in charge of that. Barack Obama and the Democratic party believe the United States government to be the fundamental factor of happiness in people's lives. This is really what is behind the "you didn't build that" comment, and it is scary.

But the implicit Democratic claim that government is the most important factor in enabling happiness is only half the problem. The other half is how the Democratic party views human flourishing, and it's calculus here is thoroughly materialistic. I only heard two real promises at the Democratic convention: one was that everyone would be taken care of in a more centrally managed economy; the other was that women of any age would be allowed to abort their children at any stage, and I was astonished at how much convention time was militantly devoted to "women's health issues." Happiness, according to that convention, is material comfort and being able to treat the unborn as material: cradle to grave security, sexual license, and pride in the government which provides it.

But it won't make people happy. Like Dostoevsky's Underground Man, they'll still want to throws rocks at the glass cathedral when they find out how dead it is.

The Republicans, if nothing else, are willing to allow a space for traditional civic society to exist, in its variety. Happiness flows from membership in a polis, not a colossus. I don't think that either party appreciates this enough, but under the Republicans, who at least claim to understand the limitations of big government, local civic society has done better.

Appendix: Private Sector Just Fine

(Private Sector Doing Just Fine)

(Obama Qualifies Private Sector Fine Remark)

I think Obama is entitled to his clarification.

Appendix 2: Daniel Henninger Editorial

The day after I wrote this entry, the following editorial from Daniel Henninger's Wonderland column appeared. He is in sync with much of what I said: The Obama Democrats

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