Weisberg on Obama's "Vision"

Monday, January 26, 2009

Myrhaf rightly notes that the real meaning of Barack Obama's recent swipe at Rush Limbaugh is to attack the Man with the Golden Microphone as a surrogate for holding pro-capitalist principles.

... I think Obama's statement is about a deeper issue than any single radio personality. Rush Limbaugh is a symbol here for holding principles. Granted, Obama is overestimating the Republicans by implying they might have principles any more, but that is what he is truly attacking in his statement. [bold added]
He elaborates more on that last thought:
If the Republicans had free market principles, they would be fighting for separation of economy and state. Any compromise they make with Obama on a stimulus bill helps only the side that wants more big government. Freedom is not advanced by any compromise any more than a man's health is advanced if he only takes half a dose of poison instead of a full dose. [bold added]
Myrhaf is right about that, too, and proceeds to note that Obama, whom some praise as a pragmatist and others hope is "only" a pragmatist -- is perhaps simply using pragmatism here as a means of eliciting compromise -- which really, ultimately means accepting Obama's principles.

Whatever the case, the following example of Republican "opposition" to Obama's stimulus plan was none too heartening:
Republicans are also angry that the economic stimulus plan contains funding for contraceptives and other Democratic pet projects....
Not that I am morally opposed to contraception, but I don't want the government funding it, either. However, as a principled proponent of capitalism, I must say that even if such opposition were secular (which it isn't), there are far bigger fish to fry here.

I would oppose the "stimulus" plan on the grounds that I oppose the government interfering with the economy at all. This is in part because, in order to redistribute wealth, the government must violate property rights sooner (e.g., via taxation) or later (e.g., via inflation). In addition to the recent orgy of Republican interference in the economy, this bickering over how to redistribute wealth shows that many Republicans are already exactly where Obama wants them.

Be that as it may, and regardless of whether Obama is more the cunning leftist who sees the value of pragmatism in breaking up an unprincipled opposition or simply the pragmatist surrounded by leftists, it is interesting to see that the issue of pragmatism staring to crop up in the more sympathetic mainstream press.

I saw an excellent example on a visit to RealClear Politics this morning, where we see that Jacob Weisberg, editor of Slate and author of In Defense of Government, is no pushover for mere pragmatism, and finds himself disappointed when reconsidering the Obama Inaugural Address "in the less euphoric light of the next day":
"Whatever works" is less a vision of the public sector's proper role than a placeholder for someone who has yet to figure out what he thinks that role should be.

Obama's pragmatic liberalism risks blurring execution with intention, means with ends. To take his illustrations, it is either up to the commonweal to provide a minimum income to retired people, to offer health insurance to everybody and to increase income equality -- or it isn't. Most liberals would say these are legitimate responsibilities of government. Most conservatives would argue they aren't. On income security for the elderly, we've had a social consensus since the New Deal. On health care, a consensus may be emerging after decades of national ambivalence. When it comes to growing income inequality, a newer problem, there is no consensus. But Obama must decide what government's goals are before considering the subordinate questions of what works and how much we can afford. [minor formatting edits, bold added]
And yet, we get the following somewhat vague clarification at the end of the piece:
But as he navigates the crisis, Obama would do well to figure out what he thinks about the fundamental question of government's responsibilities. He might begin by pondering some words of his role model, Abraham Lincoln, who in 1854 wrote, "The legitimate object of government is to do for the people what needs to be done, but which they can not, by individual effort, do at all, or do so well, for themselves." Obama's test of practicality comes after Lincoln's test of principle. [bold added, link dropped]
Lincoln's wide-open (and incorrect) notion of the proper role of government still leaves hanging the whole question of what the people ought to do. This is interesting in and of itself, but I think it shows that the left is starting to become paranoid about Obama, but not yet so paranoid as to openly admit what it thinks the the government ought to be doing.

Whether that paranoia is warranted or not, it is high time that America began discussing the proper role of government, for it would seem she has been slowly forgetting it for quite some time.

-- CAV


Jim May said...

If government's job is to do for people what they can't do for themselves, the motive behind the disempowerment of the individual becomes clear. After all, the more helpless people think they are, the more responsibilities (and therefore, rights) they are willing to cede the government.

Gus Van Horn said...


Daniel said...

When someone like Bush is in office, who gives lip service to ideas like a smaller government and the value of a "free market", it's unsurprising that many on the left scream the absolute need of pragmatism (and of compromise).

On the other hand, now that someone like Obama is in office, the whole pragmatism thing might not be as important to many. They'd like to see him act on his principles--which they of course feel are their own.

--The Nearby Pen

Gus Van Horn said...

Were it not for the fact that the nature of government -- that it deals in force -- will make innocents like ourselves suffer as well, the prospect of individuals like this experiencing what a real left-wing government would be like on their own hides would be quite amusing,