The obnoxious temerity of Barack Obama has shown itself most clearly in four words uttered in Roanoke, Virginia. “You didn’t build that,” has become more than a theme in the 2012 election, it is a line of demarcation that forces every person to declare on which side they stand.
Can the American experiment in liberty, asked Henry David Thoreau in the classic Civil Disobedience, stand across generations without “losing some of its integrity?” The government, said Thoreau, has shown “how successfully men can be imposed on.” From there Thoreau presages the Obama mindset, answering long before the current head of government took office, “government never of itself furthered any enterprise.”
“It does not keep the country free. It does not settle the West. It does not educate. The character inherent in the American people has done all that has been accomplished; and it would have done somewhat more, if the government had not sometimes got in the way.
And, if one were to judge these men [the government] wholly by the effects of their actions, and not partly by their intentions, they would deserve to be classed and punished with those mischievous person who put obstructions on the railroads.”
Thoreau was no political theorist and had no appetite to legislate before the public. In many ways he was a radical of his age for his veneration of Nature and his deep suspicion of material and industrial progress. But Thoreau knew with certainty that it is the individual that stood above society. Only through the application of the individual will could man serve the higher power.
The question is not new, indeed human nature has shown itself wonderfully impervious to the machinations of history. Ever has man wrestled with a balance between liberty and security. Ever too have some men chosen the false promises, and ignored the homespun wisdom of Benjamin Franklin that “they who choose to sacrifice a little liberty for security” will soon have neither.
Margaret Fuller, like Thoreau a disciple of Ralph Waldo Emerson, saw a repeating pattern in history sprung from this choice.
“Man has, now and then, enjoyed a clear, triumphant hour, when some irresistible conviction warmed and purified the atmosphere of his planet. But presently, he sought repose after his labors, when the crowd of pygmy adversaries bound him in his sleep. Long years of inglorious imprisonment followed, while his enemies reveled in his spoils.” Those bonds would only be broken when a spark “rekindled the poetic soul to revelation of his claims, of his rights,” Fuller wrote in the Transcendentalism journal The Dial.
The spirit of freedom, the love of liberty, the devotion to the individual, has permeated generations of Americans, all the while losing some of its integrity. Today we are approaching a threshold. How near we are to it, or even if we have already crossed it, I cannot say. The rugged individualism espoused by President Hoover spoke of a philosophy in government that took us “resolutely back to our fundamental conception of the state and the rights and responsibility of the individual. Thereby it restored confidence and hope in the American people, it freed and stimulated enterprise, it restored the government to a position as an umpire instead of a player in the economic game. For these reasons the American people have gone forward in progress, “making ours a “land of opportunity to those born without inheritance, not merely because of the wealth of its resources and industry but because of this freedom of initiative and enterprise.”
A year after that speech the world was cast into a great depression, and fear gripped many, and the many did sacrifice liberties for the promise of security. Before transferring the office of President Hoover himself dispatched his faith in freedom in pursuit of security.
Security purchased through the force of state indeed proved false. Today most economists and historians (perhaps most famously UCLA economists Cole and Ohanian) demonstrate that the diminution of freedoms and weight of government in fact prolonged and deepened the depression.
Living through the great recession we today suffer under an economic slump that defies all models in its length and depth, feed, as in 1933, by a government that would do too much.
The question before us has been asked of every American generation. It was asked in 1928 and remains relevant today.
“There is [in this election]… submitted to the American people a question of fundamental principle. That is: shall we depart from the principles of our American political and economic system, upon which we have advanced beyond all the rest of the world” or do we embrace a departure that “will jeopardize the very liberty and freedom of our people, and will destroy equality of opportunity not only to ourselves, but to our children?”
By clarifying the central issue Obama has done the nation a favor. Do we believe that our entrepreneurs, innovators, and millions of hard working Americans “didn’t build that,” or do we bitterly cling (another phrase we can attribute to Obama) to faith in liberty and American self-government?