Wednesday, November 05, 2008

How Big a Change?

Tibor R. Machan

Supporters of Barack Obama regard his election as promising significant change. If what they mean is that America has elected someone resident who is widely taken to be black or African American, the change is culturally significant, yes. But is it politically?

Senator Obama does appear to openly champion certain ideas that few others on the national scene have in American political history. Yes, there have been some who have promoted wealth redistribution, and one or two has actually run for president, none has come even close to winning such high office.

Senator Obama’s wealth distribution ideas are important because they challenge a basic tenet of America’s founding documents, both philosophical and legal. In the Declaration of Independence everyone is said to have an unalienable right to his or her life and liberty, as well as to pursuing his or her own happiness. Of course, never has American political reality fully implemented this idea but lip service has been paid to it all along. No major candidate has explicitly challenged the Declaration’s ideas, especially the one about one’s right to liberty. When one advocates wealth redistribution by the federal government, one is challenging the idea that a person has a right to liberty—the liberty to obtain and use wealth as one sees proper is contradicted by it. Put generally, in line with the philosophy of the Founders it is individual citizens who get to distribute their wealth as they want to. Senator Obama, in contrast, openly advocates that government be the wealth distributor in society, not individual citizens and groups of them (in their various interactions).
But the Senator may bring one change that Americans ought to welcome a great deal, namely, put an end to America’s foreign military adventurism. However, wealth redistribution by government is no great novelty since the practice has been going on in American forever. Indeed, America has been, like so many other countries in the so called free world, a mixed system, combining elements of several theories of political economy, socialist, fascist, capitalist, etc.

Contrary to what some prominent but sadly untrustworthy historians of the American economy claim, America has never had a capitalist economy. So Barack Obama’s views are not at all far off the beaten path. His view is the more direct and unabashed articulation of the theory that the government exists in part to take wealth from some people even though they came by it honestly, and transfer it, with or without their consent, to others whom officials in the government decide should have it. That idea has thus far been anathema to America’s official economic philosophy—the exceptions had been just that, exceptions. Now it has ascended to a dominant position in the rhetoric of American public policy.

Does this mean that all the talk of change is but empty rhetoric? That can only be judged by those who know Barack Obama far better than I do. Some of his history, some of what he has said in the past, would point to his wanting to make America into more of a democratic socialist system—the government gets to decided how resources are distributed in the country, nominally based on the voting majority’s priorities. Never mind private property rights or freedom of trade. Yet, as noted already, this has been the reality for a long time. The novelty is its promising to become official public policy.

The fact that Barack Obama is “black,” an African American, also adds a novelty, a change, if you will, but this one is more cultural than political. Had it been a black candidate who defends capitalism the novelty would be the same but the policy implications of it would be none. That indeed is the idea of a color blind political legal system, that a government official’s color, race, ethnicity, etc., matters not a whit.

Culturally, though, Barack Obama’s election has considerable significance since it challenges in no uncertain terms the widely repeated charge that all Americans are racists. (This is not hyperbole—several contributors to The New York Review of Books repeat this every year.) But I do not believe that is what Senator Obama and his supporters had in mind when they talked about making changes in Washington, D.C.

In either case, however, the substance of public policy in the country is not likely to change much at all. We will remain a mixed system, a welfare state, with various factions or groups of Americans aiming to have their government officials transfer wealth to them out of the pockets of those who legitimately own it.

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