Friday, January 30, 2009

Obama's Job Self-Description

Tibor R. Machan

In his book The AUDACITY of HOPE, Barack Obama provides readers with a pretty clear sense of his understanding of politics and why he finds the Declaration of Independence unsatisfactory as his guide in matters of governance. Very early in the book Obama mentions the genesis of his political career and what kept him going even in the face of obstacles such as his strange name, something called to his attention by a media consultant who pointed out the fact that the "political dynamics have changed" by showing a newspaper to Obama with the name "Osama bin Laden" prominently featured on the front page. Nevertheless, Obama pressed on and he explains why: It was "the legislative work, the policy making that had gotten [him] to run in the first place."

Now in a free country the legislative work and policy making is confined to figuring out how best the secure the rights of the citizenry. As the Declaration states, governments are instituted to secure our rights, so politics is about that, nothing else. By this approach the job description of a politician is to work hard to make sure that we have our rights well secured, protected. These rights, if you will recall, include our life, liberty, pursuit of happiness and similar conditions of freedom. The American political tradition is all about such negative rights, as political theorists call them--rights that specify what others may not do to us, rights in terms of which our sovereignty is established. Unlike the regimes of the past, in which politics involved to a very large extent the management of society--religion, science, art, commerce and all--in the new American political system politics was not about these tasks at all but about serving the public by fending off domestic and foreign aggression.

As the world evolves the proper way to secure our negative rights must be adjusted because the violation of these rights can take numerous novel forms. It is the function of the legislature of a free society to keep up with these novel threats to our individual rights so that government can keep being effective in securing them all. In the bloated welfare state that America has become the job description of a politician isn't figuring out the best ways to secure the rights of the citizenry. In welfare states and in the even more robust systems of socialism and fascism the job of the politician changes from a concern about how to protect our individual (negative) rights to "policy making." Which is to say, politicians are once again the managers of the society and make policy instead of securing the rights the protection of which make it possible for the citizenry to engage in their own peaceful, non-aggressive policy making.

The souls of our politicians are different from how the American Founders understood they should be. Politicians who were to serve us after the American Revolution--which rejected government that would manage us all as if we were subjects (as we are under the king)--would not be making policy. They would be at work on how to make it possible for us all to make policy in our lives, professions, businesses, arts, and all other human endeavors. Like referees at a football game, politicians are supposed to be there to play the game--to make policies about the innumerable undertakings of free men and women--but to provide protection against those who would seek to make trouble by breaking the rules, by violating our rights.

Sadly, Barack Obama, along with all the other welfare state politicians in our era, did and does not see his job description in the light that the American Founders laid out. Rather he wanted very badly to make policy for the rest of us. And of course, then, the Declaration of Independence would not contain the political philosophy he would wish for. Instead it is the old regime, whereby monarchs ran society, that would suit him much better.

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