Ed Driscoll

The Virtue Of Selfishness

Jonah Goldberg posts his initial thoughts on President Obama’s speech and notes, “I agree with most of the folks here that it wasn’t as well-written as I expected. There were some awfully clunky cliches in there”, after listing a few, he hits upon a great observation regarding freedom versus collectivism:

One last point, for now. There was also a great deal of nonsense in there. Ramesh already mentioned the bit about harnessing the sun and whatnot to power our factories (why not distill energy from our strategic unicorn manure stockpile). But the line that grated on me most came from the bit about service and sacrifice. He said:

For us, they packed up their few worldly possessions and traveled across oceans in search of a new life.

For us, they toiled in sweatshops and settled the West; endured the lash of the whip and plowed the hard earth.

No, “they” didn’t. Slaves certainly didn’t endure the lash of the whip out of a sense of service and sacrifice for us. That is one of the reasons slavery is so evil; it isn’t voluntary. Suffice it to say that if that line had come out of a different man’s mouth it would not be nearly so well-received. Nor did those immigrants make their sacrifices for “us.” They made them for themselves, for their own pursuit of happiness, for their families.

This is not to say we do not benefit from the sweat of their brows and the shedding of their blood, but Obama’s rhetorical ambition seems broader than that insight. He wants to forge a new sense of collective identity. There are aspects of that effort that are admirable or defensible, to be sure. Don’t we conservatives lament a lost sense of citizenship and the erosion of a common culture? But too often he comes across as wanting to take that collective vision and drape it over individualism and enterprise like a wet blanket. The pursuit of individual prosperity is not selfish and the effort to defend it is neither a tired dogma nor a childish thing. I often get the sense that President Obama doesn’t see it that way, never more so than today.

Which may be one of the reasons why one of the most visible scorecards for that prosperity was so off today.