While repeatedly announcing his fidelity to America’s founding principles, President Obama’s second inaugural announces a very different vision of America. Near the beginning of his speech, the president states:
What makes us exceptional, what makes us America is our allegiance to an idea articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. That they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, and among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
So far, so good. But then he says this:
Today we continue a never ending journey to bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time.
This strikes me as imputing a veneer of contingency over what are supposed to be “self-evident” truths. The president seems to be announcing a philosophy of Historicism in which the ideas—even “self-evident” ones—change over time. If so, then these truths are not “self-evident” at all—they are evident only through the lens of History. This is confirmed in the very next line of the speech, when he says:
For history tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they’ve never been self-executing. That while freedom is a gift from God, it must be secured by his people here on earth.
As we’ll see a bit later in the speech, individual freedom has been remade from an end of government to a means, a contingent idea that must yield to circumstances. Individual freedom is sufficient only to guarantee opportunity, not the kind of outcome that modern Progressives believe everyone should have as a baseline. Thus, individual freedom must be limited to the extent that government can first ensure that baseline. This may be a laudable goal, but it is not a “self-evident” one.
The president goes on, again announcing fidelity to our founding principles:
Through it all, we have never relinquished our skepticism of central authority, nor have we succumbed to the fiction that all society’s ills can be cured through government alone. Our celebration of initiative and enterprise; our insistence on hard work and personal responsibility, are constants in our character.
He then immediately delivers another defense of History:
But we have always understood that when times change, 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.
Strawmen aside, the president offers no explanation how we can still pledge “allegiance” to “self-evident” truths if we also accept his vision that “preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action.” At the founding, individual freedom was itself an end. Their usefulness will depend on the individual and the circumstances, and may in some cases be limited indeed. But that was largely beside the point—the idea that government should be remade to ensure a minimum “cash value” of individual freedom is of recent vintage. The freedoms granted by government are the ones that have cash value.
Through the lens of History, individual freedom could and should be reprovisioned as the means of “progress.” Progress toward what is the perennially begged question. As Jonathan Chait attempted to explain, “For us [liberals], everything works on a case-by-case basis. Should government provide everybody’s education? Yes. Should government manufacture everybody’s blue jeans? No. And so on.” “And so on…what? Where?” William Voegeli asks. “‘And so on’ suggests continuation in a defined direction, the application of a general approach to new particulars. But there are only political particulars for Chait—generalities have no bearing on the business of governing—so there’s nothing to be said about how liberalism will move from one issue to another. The implication is that since liberalism doesn’t really have a theory, it will acquire all its meaning in practice.”
Having reprovisioned individual freedom as a means towards that famously open-ended project of Progressivism, the president goes on to say:
But while the means will change, our purpose endures: a nation that rewards the effort and determination of every single American. That is what this moment requires. That is what will give real meaning to our creed.
Again, through seemingly anodyne statements, the president announces profound changes to traditional American principles. “Effort and determination” have never been the touchstone of “reward.” For if “effort and determination” have become our touchstone, there is no basis for A-Rod to earn more than his average fan. As Hayek recognized,
“Any attempt to found the case for freedom on this argument is very damaging to it, since it concedes that material rewards ought to be made to correspond to recognizable merit and then opposes the conclusion that most people will draw from this by an assertion which is untrue. The proper answer is that in a free system it is neither desirable nor practicable that material rewards should be made generally to correspond to what men recognize as merit and that it is an essential characteristic of a free society that an individual’s position should not necessarily depend on the views that his fellows hold about the merit he has acquired.” “Reward according to merit must in practice mean reward according to assessable merit, merit that other people can recognize and agree upon and not merit merely in the sight of some higher power. Assessable merit in this sense presupposes that we can ascertain that a man has done what some accepted rule of conduct demanded of him and that this has cost him some pain and effort. Whether this has been the case cannot be judged by the result: merit is not a matter of the objective outcome but of subjective effort. The attempt to achieve a valuable result may be highly meritorious but a complete failure, and full success may be entirely the result of accident and thus without merit.” “If we know that a man has done his best, we will often wish to see him rewarded irrespective of the result; and if we know that a most valuable achievement is almost entirely due to luck or favorable circumstances, we will give little credit to the author. We may wish that we were able to draw this distinction in every instance. In fact, we can do so only rarely with any degree of assurance. It is possible only where we possess all the knowledge which was at the disposal of the acting person, including a knowledge of his skill and confidence, his state of mind and his feelings, his capacity for attention, his energy and persistence, etc.”
Either the president does not understand this, to his discredit, or he does—in which case, we should expect him to champion greater redistribution, government control over every level of the economy.
The president’s challenges can be argued on the merits, but they represent a much different view than the “self-evident” truths underlying the American founding. If he is to lead us toward his vision, he should have the courage to say so.