Wednesday, January 21, 2009

“Our” ambitions?

Tibor R. Machan

In his inaugural address our new president averred that “Now, there are some who question the scale of our ambitions—who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans. Their memories are short. For they have forgotten what this country has already done; what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose, and necessity to courage.”

I take some exception to Mr. Obama’s implicit assertion that what matters in a good society is that there be some kind of large scale ambition afoot, some sort of big plan. Frankly, it smacks to me of those famous Five Year Plans that the Soviet Union was constantly rolling out and conscripting everyone to serve. Usually these “big plans” are not of our making at all but only those of some of us, a few who take it upon themselves to speak for everyone, who imagine that they can forge such collective endeavors without really consulting us at all.

The uniqueness of the American system of government includes not making plans for us all but making it possible for us to pursue our own plans. This recognizes the diversity of the citizenry, with all of its varied big and small plans that can be pursued in mutually harmonious ways without an attitude of “one size fits all.”

When the Declaration of Independence lists as one of the basic human individual rights all of us have the “pursuit of happiness,” it acknowledges, at least implicitly, that in a big country very different ways to attain happiness are possible. What the public good amounts to in such a free society is that everyone’s rights are secured so they may all go about their big or small plans without being driven by some leader, king, tsar or “Fuhrer.”

The American political tradition rejects the idea that for our lives to be meaningful we must get on board a train that goes to just one common place. It recognizes, instead, that human beings have some common purposes, yes, but mostly pursue their happiness in many different ways with ends that are themselves quite varied.

So if President Obama understood well this tradition—including his role in it—he would stop talking about big plans as if they were the only worthwhile ones and focus, instead, on the plain and at once glorious fact that in a free country there will be millions and millions of small plans and no big one at all apart from making the pursuit of those small plans possible.

Not that this idea is simple to grasp and appreciate. For too many people what is worthwhile has to be big, large, massive, colossal, like the pyramids, Hoover Dam, the Eiffel Tower. The illusions created by these large projects tend to be that they aren’t just big but very important, more important than the “puny plans” of individuals.

The American political tradition rejects this and does not prejudge what kind of plan is meaningful and worthwhile for you and me and millions and millions of others. It serves, rather, to provide a setting in which all of us have the right to pursue our plans, provided they are peaceful and meet certain standards appropriate for those whose tasks they are--artists, scientists, educators, managers, foremen, home makers, and the lot.

Please let’s stop being condescending toward all these folks because they aren’t part of some big plan. Their varied individual plans are quite worthwhile, thank you, Mr. President.

Machan holds the R. C. Hoiles Chair in business ethics and free enterprise at Chapman University, Orange, CA. His collection of columns (unproofed) may be found at

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