In President Obama’s much-discussed speech in Roanoke, Virginia, among his remarks on the source of success was his assertion that
If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.
What is one to make of the president’s celebration of the government’s role in the personal pursuits of citizens and his diminishment of the causal connection between the productivity of individuals and the success of their pursuits? This essay locates the source of Obama’s assertion in the influence on his thought of philosopher John Rawls’s theory of distributive justice and philosophical pragmatism’s theories of mind, self, and society. But I begin with what he asserts is the defining issue of our time:
Should we settle for an economy where a few people do really well and then a growing number are struggling to get by? Or do we build an economy … where everybody gets a fair shot, and everybody does their fair share, and everybody is playing by the same set of rules?
The questions are to be expected from a president who believes that
When you are president … your job is to figure out how everybody in the country has a fair shot.… Your job as President is to think about how do we set up an equitable tax system so that everybody is paying their fair share, that allows us then to invest in science and technology and infrastructure, all of which are going to help us grow.
As earlier statements in his career indicate, Obama’s vision of paternalistic governance is the view he brought with him to the presidency. In 1998, as a first-term Illinois state senator, he argued that in order to ensure that “nobody is left behind,” government systems must be more efficiently structured to “pool resources and hence facilitate some redistribution.” While on that occasion he underscored his proposal with the declaration that “I actually believe in redistribution, at least at a certain level,” as president he uses such euphemisms as “investment,” “giving back,” “giving everyone a fair shot” or “fair share” and “economic patriotism” — all of which imply redistribution by another name.
At first glance the ideal of “fair shares for all” suggests the requirement of a political and economic framework based on Karl Marx’s distribution policy of “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” But Obama’s conception of fairness is not of classic Marxist origin. As noted, it is more a reflection of philosopher John Rawls’s theory of justice and pragmatism’s varied perspectives of the self-society relationship. His vision is a version of the altruist-collectivist social contract that Jean Jacques Rousseau proposed as the solution to the problem of constructing a society of freedom divorced from property ownership, which he saw as the source of a war of all against all. His thought also includes the Progressive belief, as argued by William Allen White, that the solution to democracy’s problem of unleashed self-interest lies in overcoming the spirit of commercialism with the spirit of sacrifice.
The Rawlsian Community of Equals
Obama’s vision is a response to the failure of the American economy to realize John Rawls’s difference principle. READ MORE
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