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Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Obama And Collectivism

In his Inaugural address, President Obama set forth a liberal vision for America; and although he punctuated his speech with words of praise for the individualism that has always been at the heart of our democracy, economy, and society, his plea was to shed much of the aggressive self-interest that has characterized America in the last decades and to turn to collective action.  Not only is no man an island, suggested Obama, but only through concerted, cooperative action can men change the world for the better.

The President, freed from the constraints of a first term in which he had to consolidate his power, expand his base, negotiate carefully with Congress, secure the support of both corporate America and Wall Street; he is now who everyone knew he was from the beginning – a Chicago community organizer. 

“But we have always understood that when times change” Obama said, “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.

He went on to say that collective action is especially required in the fight against Global Warming and for the full inclusion and acceptance of gay men and women into the majority.  These issues are too important and the challenges too great for any individual or even loosely affiliated individuals to make a difference.  Strong, motivated, ambitious collective action is what is required.

He then went on to focus on individualism per se – the moral and Christian imperative to help others.  While he, in this carefully crafted speech, did not characterize the American populace is increasingly self-centered, venal, and indifferent, it was not hard to read between the lines.  The safety net is more than just a government construct, a well-designed catch-all for those who did not succeed in America’s competitive society; it represents a social cohesion, the goodness of Americans.

To emphasize the fact that this idea is very American, he cited the words of the Founding Fathers – Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness – and suggested that we all need to reexamine this phrase and to reflect on its continuing relevance.  The Founding Fathers, Obama suggested, believed that our nation was to be built on a good life, one based on liberty and freedom, but one in which individual enterprise was carried out for the sake of the common good. While not specifically citing Thomas Jefferson, he must have been thinking of him.  Jefferson, a child of The Enlightenment and influenced by Locke and Rousseau contended that the moral duty and obligation of the individual was to work for the greater good:

The Founding Fathers were very much concerned with the respecting the rights of the individual but also with the fostering of civic community which would offer protection and benefits.  They sought to achieve a balance between the inviolable rights of the individual to pursue his spiritual needs and to work freely and without encumbrance; and the importance of community to support these and other goals.  When Jefferson wrote about ‘the pursuit of happiness' in the Declaration of Independence he was influenced by the philosophy of John Locke – one did not pursue happiness for personal pleasure or satisfaction, but for the well-being of society – the aggregation of individuals

Jean-Jacques Rousseau certainly influenced Jefferson as well.  As noted by  Anne Deneys-Tunney in the Guardian (7.15.12), writing about Rousseau’s Social Contract the philosophy of both theorists coincided on the subject of the precedence of societal values over the more personal interests of the individual:

As a revolutionary thinker, Rousseau understood that the general will, or the will of the people, should be sovereign – and that is the catch. It is here where we regain our freedom inside social organization. Only the general will – general interest as opposed to private interest – guarantees man his autonomy. No society can be free unless individuals understand that the general will or general interest should prevail over their own individual one. http://www.uncleguidosfacts.com/2012/07/rousseauthe-social-contract-and.html)

As indirectly and carefully as Obama said it, the observation that America had fallen off those sanctified rails of early democracy was evident; and the call to regain the course while gentle, was urgent.

This is all well and good. America at times does seem self-absorbed, over individualistic, greedy, and ignorant of any moral principles of right behavior.  Wall Street greed, the depredations of corporate America, the tossing of the weak and infirm into the gutter in a sink-or-swim conservative tide, are all clear examples – or so say ‘progressive’ commentators.  Yet capitalism has always been a system with exaggerated edges, highs and lows.  In our country there are the super-rich and the desperately poor.  They have always existed and they always will.  Experiments with Socialism and Communism, attempts to level the field and to ensure that there were no such ends of the bell curve but only one happy middle have failed, and we are left with our own imperfect but dynamic system.

Somehow we have managed to survive the crises and dislocations provoked by capitalism.  We survived not only The Great Depression but the serious recessions of ‘37, ‘45, ‘48, ‘53, ‘57 and many more up to and including the most recent one from which we are just now emerging.  Government legislation helped to curb the excesses of the Robber Barons and the worst of laissez-faire capitalism, to protect workers, to provide jobs for the unemployed.  Because the laws were not so restrictive to hobble private enterprise, the economy thrived in the interim, and in fact was dynamic.  Obama was right to cite the important regulatory role of government; but he did not provide the proper context for the inevitable business cycles, the enviable business productivity, and the remarkable, persistent, and exceptional enterprise of the individual.

The world is a dramatically different place than it was in the halcyon days of liberalism where government acted almost in loco parentis. American economic exuberance is now almost beyond public constraint and a new paradigm is emerging.  First, market forces are more powerful than ever. As government, urged on by environmentalists, made questionable investments in alternative energy, the oil and gas industry made radical structural changes on its own.  Weary of spending billions on the defense of oil fields in unstable Third World countries and subject to the capriciousness of corrupt dictatorships, they invested in North America.  While the search for and exploitation of new energy sources (oil shale, fracking, oil sands) involved significant capital investment, it has paid off in a big way.  Not only is America on the way to energy self-sufficiency, but we are less dependent on foreign supply.  As importantly, as cheap gas replaces relatively expensive coal, the environment benefits. Finally cheap energy is attracting manufacturing jobs back to America.   In short, depredations of tin-pot dictators in Africa started a long chain which has ended in great benefits to the US, all through the private market.

American small business, especially in the IT sector is as robust as it has ever been; and garage-educated twenty-somethings are not multi-billionaires.  The law reins in the most rapacious competitors – even the august Apple, Google, and Microsoft have felt the long arm of the law – but the private sector is the engine of American progress.  It is no wonder that the US is emerging from a long recession quicker than the statist economies of Western Europe.

Obama’s suggestion that collectivism needs renewal is not correct.  Lobby groups are the perfect example of an energized electorate.  They are not just legions of suits promoting big corporate interests, but legions of grey-hairs organized by AARP to demand their ‘right’ to Social Security and Medicare.  Obama suggest that more collective action – more moral commitment to each other – is called for; but in reality the AARP is one powerful organization.  The reason why Medicare and Social Security will outlast Congressional reformers is because of the over 50s.

Secondly, even in our increasingly atomized society, individuals are collectively organized through the Internet, especially social media.  When Netflix arbitrarily split streaming and DVD rental, thus collecting more revenues, the public outcry – via the Internet – was deafening and Netflix rolled back its new charges.  The government Consumer Protection Agency is nothing compared to price- and product-sensitive consumers, newly-savvy thanks to their access to mediated information.

Obama voices concerns over jobs and the unemployed, and somehow suggests collective action here as well.  Yet, the restructuring of American industry, while temporarily causing dislocations of labor is revitalizing and upgrading it.  The final elimination of manufacturing unions has enabled businesses to reduce unnecessary costs, allowed for a freer flow of labor and capital, and has produced a more internationally competitive industry. Online retail, with its inbuilt consumer feedback, is more responsive to individuals.  Big data and sophisticated algorithms enable marketers to understand consumers far more than they ever have.  Hotel chains like Marriott and Hilton are applying new ‘sentiment’ software to pick up on critical observations made by unhappy lodgers on Facebook and Twitter, and thus this ‘collectivity’ of individual consumers effects change.

Americans, like all people, are well aware that collective action is sometimes required to effect change.  If enough of us in the neighborhood are sick and tired of indifferent street repair by the DC government, then we can easily organize a campaign to deluge our Council Member with complaints.  There is no longer a problem of dog shit because neighbors one-by-one and then collectively changed the prevailing social norm.  We besiege school administrators with demands thanks to collective action in PTAs.  The list is endless.  When we see the need, we act; and in that collective action we are no different from primitive tribes who band together because one bow-and-arrow is not enough to bring down the beast.

The fact is that Obama has selected his own particular liberal agenda and called for more concerted collective action to achieve the ends he has in mind.  Tens of millions of people contributed money to political campaigns in a collective activity to rid the world of him.

David Brooks writing in the New York Times (1.22.13) expresses a similar view and says it well.  America does not need a dose of old liberalism, government sympathy and patronization, but just the opposite:

I also think Obama misunderstands this moment. The Progressive Era, New Deal and Great Society laws were enacted when America was still a young and growing nation. They were enacted in a nation that was vibrant, raw, underinstitutionalized and needed taming.

We are no longer that nation. We are now a mature nation with an aging population. Far from being underinstitutionalized, we are bogged down with a bloated political system, a tangled tax code, a byzantine legal code and a crushing debt.

The task of reinvigorating a mature nation is fundamentally different than the task of civilizing a young and boisterous one. It does require some collective action: investing in human capital. But, in other areas, it also involves stripping away — streamlining the special interest sinecures that have built up over the years and liberating private daring.

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