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“Tectonic change,” Barack Obama, and You

March 30th, 2009 - 5:59 am

A “tectonic change in the relationship between business and government”: remember that phrase. And note that a “tectonic,” i.e., a fundamental, change between business and government is also a tectonic change between the individual and government. “What our generation has forgotten,” Friedrich Hayek wrote in The Road to Serfdom, “is that the system of private property is the most important guaranty of freedom, not only for those who own property, but scarcely less for those those who do not.”

The tectonic change in the relationship between business and government, between the individual and government, signals not only the expansion of government control, it also signals the contraction of individual freedom.

From the very beginning of his campaign, Obama made it clear that economic “fairness” was his political lodestar.

He made it clear, but did we really understand him? “Fairness”: that’s a good thing, isn’t it? Who can be against “fairness”?

But what if by “fairness” he meant not “impartial justice” but “equalized outcomes”? What if by “fairness” he meant “spreading the wealth around”? What then? “Who can doubt,” Hayek asked, “. . . that the power which a multiple millionaire, who may be my neighbor and perhaps my employer, has over me is very much less than that which the smallest functionnaire possess who wields the coercive power of the state on whose discretion it depends whether and how I am to be allowed to live or to work?”

The chapter of The Road to Serfdom in which these words appear is called Who, Whom?–the question that, said Lenin, was the fundamental fulcrum of politics.

The genius of the American system has been to short-circuit that question by distributing the power of the subject: Lenin’s “Who” is longer a central and centralizing authority but a multiplicity of actors each with his native interests and prerogatives. Burke spoke of the importance to liberty of  those “little platoons” that claim our daily allegiance. James Madison, in Federalist LI, made a similar point when he observed that “the policy of supplying, by opposite and rival interests, the defect of better motives” helped encourage the distribution of power and hence the growth of liberty.

The tectonic change contemplated by the Obama administration would have us disband those little platoons and assimilate ourselves to the swarming army of the state. Madison’s “opposite and rival interests,” for these collectivists, impede the progress of fairness and interrupt the process of equalizing wealth.

Earlier in The Federalist, Madison observed that there were “two methods of removing the causes of faction: the one, by destroying the liberty which is essential to its existence; the other, by giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests.” Madison thought it self-evident that both courses, being inimical to liberty, spelt disaster. Madison thought that the protection of that “diversity of faculties” which underwrote the diversity of property was the “first object of government.” Our current masters in Washington disagree. They seem willing to experiment with both of the expedients Madison warned against in order to achieve their egalitarian goals. Today it is Rick Wagoner who has to go. Tomorrow? Who can say? When a tectonic change takes place, things can happen awfully fast.

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