Bad Advice From The President

Last week, President Obama gave a commencement address at The Ohio State University.

Here are some excerpts that have garnered attention:

And that’s precisely what the Founders left us — the power, each of us, to adapt to changing times. They left us the keys to a system of self-government, the tools to do big things and important things together that we could not possibly do alone — to stretch railroads and electricity and a highway system across a sprawling continent. To
educate our people with a system of public schools and land-grant colleges, including The Ohio State University. To care for the sick and the vulnerable, and provide a basic level of protection from falling into abject poverty in the wealthiest nation on Earth. (Applause.) To conquer fascism and disease; to visit the Moon and Mars; to gradually secure our God-given rights for all of our citizens, regardless of who they are, or what they look like, or who they love. (Applause.)

We, the people, chose to do these things together — because we know this country cannot accomplish great things if we pursue nothing greater than our own individual ambition.

Unfortunately, you’ve grown up hearing voices that incessantly warn of government as nothing more than some separate, sinister entity that’s at the root of all our problems; some of these same voices also doing their best to gum up the works. They’ll warn that tyranny is always lurking just around the corner. You should reject these voices. Because what they suggest is that our brave and creative and unique experiment in self-rule is somehow just a sham with which we can’t be trusted.

The founders trusted us with this awesome authority. We should trust ourselves with it, too. Because when we don’t, when we turn away and get discouraged and cynical, and abdicate that authority, we grant our silent consent to someone who will gladly claim it. That’s how we end up with lobbyists who set the agenda; and policies detached from what middle-class families face every day; the well-connected who publicly demand that Washington stay out of their business — and then whisper in government’s ear for special treatment that you don’t get.

But more than anything, what we will need is political will — to harness the ingenuity of your generation, and encourage and inspire the hard work of dedicated citizens. To repair the middle class, to give more families a fair shake, to reject a country in which only a lucky few prosper because that’s antithetical to our ideals and our democracy — all of this is going to happen if you are involved, because it takes dogged determination — the dogged determination of our citizens.

There have been many responses to the speech that I liked. Here’s Gene Healy, Andrew Napolitano, Roger Pilon, and David Boaz (among others).

The speech was loaded with bad advice. The commentators above touched on the historical inaccuracy of the President’s characterization of what the founders thought, the conflation of private help and public help, the dangerous characterization of our relationship with strangers as like that of a family (which I’ve criticized before).

What bothers me most is the dangerously bad idea of replacing healthy skepticism of big government (which the President confuses with cynicism) with blind credulity in political leaders’ assertions about the great things that come from more government spending and power.

It’s as if the President is the leader of the statist religion, urging citizens to reject their own personal judgments about costs and benefits and put their faith behind the words of their political leaders. But, this faith isn’t merely harmless signaling of solidarity with other group members (as with most modern religions). This faith, while it also gives people self-righteous satisfaction and the joy of tribal efficacy, leads to people getting killed, people getting imprisoned for offending the sensibilities of neighbors and leaders, people obstructed from peacefully following their dreams, people impoverished by the satiating of egalitarian “crab-mentality” emotional reactions of their neighbors.

I’m sure the President doesn’t view himself as tyrannical, but he’s professing “virtues” that make tyranny easier.

I have some advice for graduates (and everybody else):

If you want to make the world a better place, do it peacefully through voluntary institutions; not through government. If your goal seems  great enough to justify forcing your neighbors to support, there should be strong enough arguments to garner plenty of support without coercing those who disagree.

If you feel the urge to improve the world through political action, try to expand the sphere of freedom and to shrink the sphere of coercion.