Beware Our Rousseauian Imaginer-in-Chief

Yes, this is powerful symbolism. But it is still as empty and imaginary as Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire Cat. It is new wine in old leftist bottles, and thus suffers from the same confusion and fantasies as the old left.

It all starts with a fundamental intellectual error -- namely, that one’s notion of an ideal society as created by government somehow encompasses mankind’s most inner and precious purpose. Once you assume, as philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau once did with his idea of the “general will,” that you have discovered the ultimate end-all of social life, you naturally become less concerned about limiting your means in trying to reach this ideal. All that messy business about checks and balances on government from Montesquieu and James Madison gets thrown out the window because, after all, you have embarked on a path much loftier and nobler than merely preserving freedom.

Trying simply to grow the economy or to give people more freedom and opportunity is way too mundane for a visionary leader of this ilk. The old-fashioned view of the good life in which as many people as possible can live as free and happily as the government will let them has given way to a vision of society in which no one is happy unless all are. The fact that this is an impossible goal makes no difference, because if you object you not only are accused of lacking imagination, but of callously depriving people of their happiness.

This is no small matter. How else could you justify “transforming” America’s constitutional order as President Obama, Harry Reid, and Nancy Pelosi have promised to do if not for some great transcendent purpose? Pelosi famously responded to a question about whether her health care bill was constitutional with an incredulous “are you serious?” She could not even imagine health care being a question for the Constitution because, in her imagined world, everyone having health care trumps all other possible considerations.

The old cliché that the road to hell is paved with good intentions obviously applies here. But so too does “be careful what you wish for.” Any state that can acquire the power to try to create these imagined communities is one that can and will eventually bring the hard cold reality of deprivation and misery. A government that promises health care to everyone at lower cost will inevitably acquire so much control that it will make no difference if it doesn’t deliver. The power will belong to the government regardless, and despite all complaints, there will not be anything anybody can do if the reality falls short of the imagined outcome.

We are talking about statism here. Only the state (by mobilizing coercive power in government supposedly on behalf of the people) can make promises that, if broken, will lead to more state power, not less. The perverse logic is to prevent accountability for failure. Failure brings more government power, not less, because more power is supposedly the only way to fix a problem that government created in the first place. So, for example, if health care reform fails, the president or his liberal successors will not repeal the health care bill, but simply demand that more money is poured into the failing system -- and the government be given even more control.

Moreover, only the state can promise something which otherwise would make people collapse into heaps of derisive laughter. Those who believe that you can get much more health care for less cost obviously are on a different emotional and intellectual plane than those of us who balance our own checkbooks. They may imagine that the same government that can win world wars can and will deliver their wildest social dreams as well. But beware of pat comparisons of the brutal force used by armies in war and the power of government to remake society. Therein lies the road to tyranny.

President Obama is practicing the politics of imagination all right, just like countless other liberals, progressives, and leftists before him. But we should remember one thing: Imagination in this sense is fundamentally irrational. Its opposite is not thoughtlessness and stupidity, but rather reality.

In other words, the truth.