Sunday, February 10, 2013

Sophist in Chief

“But we have always understood that when times change, so must we; that fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges; that preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action. For the American people can no more meet the demands of today’s world by acting alone than American soldiers could have met the forces of fascism or communism with muskets and militias. No single person can train all the math and science teachers we’ll need to equip our children for the future, or build the roads and networks and research labs that will bring new jobs and businesses to our shores. Now, more than ever, we must do these things together, as one nation, and one people.

Barack Obama, Inauguration Speech, January 21, 2013

It’s been several weeks since Obama’s inauguration and I can’t seem to get these thoughts out of my head. I am vexed, and can’t let it go.

Frankly, I find it disturbing that a President of the United States would elevate such an ill-conceived straw man to such an eminent place in such an important speech. As if anyone - anyone! - has ever suggested that a single person might train all our math and science teachers, or build all the roads and networks that we require.

And yet it is even worse that he would construct an elaborate non-sequitur upon this gobbledygook of a premise. For it is sufficient that men, acting alone and in their best interest, might collaborate to build things both great and small. To call these efforts collectivism is simply wrong.

The most excellent exposition of this point I have ever read is the essay I, Pencil (link here). I was introduced to this gem by pundit Jonah Goldberg, who invokes it regularly when confronted with sophistry such as Obama’s speech.

If you are tempted to think that Obama was simply saying that it’s great that we all get together to get things done, maybe even while acting alone and in our best interest, I would point out that this is a patently obvious principle. Why would anyone go to great lengths in a speech to point out something so plainly obvious? Furthermore, please note that Obama began the paragraph with the word “But”. If you go back and read the speech, the prior paragraph was about “initiative and enterprise...hard work and personal responsibility.”

No, Obama was after something more in this speech. He wanted to use a string of soothing words to furtively make a case for his ideal of collectivism - a collectivism where, out of a sense of fairness, government redistributes wealth and is the solution to everyone’s problems. And he used a sloppy, illogical argument to get there. Sorry to be petty, but I just had to call him on it.

Now, don’t get me wrong: there are plenty of logical, consistent arguments for collective action, regulation, redistribution, etc. I am simply pointing out that the argument that Obama made is not one of them.

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