Listening to an Obama speech is like chowing down on a box of assorted chocolates – you never know what you’re going to get. The president’s commencement speech at the University of Michigan last Saturday was a classic case in point. To paraphrase an orator whose reputation for greatness did not involve the use of either speechwriters or teleprompters: never in the course of American politics has a president used so many words to say so little. For example, on the one hand, Obama deplores the nature of debate in the nation today:
“You can disagree with a certain policy without demonizing the person who espouses it. You can question someone’s views and their judgment without questioning their motives or their patriotism. Throwing around phrases like “socialist” and “Soviet-style takeover;” “fascist” and “right-wing nut” may grab headlines, but it also has the effect of comparing our government, or our political opponents, to authoritarian, and even murderous regimes.”
On the other hand, there’s really nothing to worry about, for that’s the way it’s always been:
“In fact, this isn’t a new phenomenon. Since the days of our founding, American politics has never been a particularly nice business – and it’s always been a little less gentle during times of great change. A newspaper of the opposing party once editorialized that if Thomas Jefferson were elected, “Murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will be openly taught and practiced.” Not subtle.”
The president is also happy to acknowledge that too much government is obviously a bad thing:
“The democracy designed by Jefferson and the other founders was never intended to solve every problem with a new law or a new program. Having thrown off the tyranny of the British Empire, the first Americans were understandably skeptical of government. Ever since, we have held fast to the belief that government doesn’t have all the answers, and we have cherished and fiercely defended our individual freedom. That is a strand of our nation’s DNA.”
Which, of course, is why we need more government:
“But what troubles me is when I hear people say that all of government is inherently bad. One of my favorite signs from the health care debate was one that read “Keep Government Out Of My Medicare,” which is essentially like saying “Keep Government Out Of My Government-Run Health Care.” For when our government is spoken of as some menacing, threatening foreign entity, it conveniently ignores the fact in our democracy, government is us. We, the people, hold in our hands the power to choose our leaders, change our laws, and shape our own destiny.”
It’s pretty much all like that. It always is when Barack Obama hits the teleprompter. If you only listened to his words, you’d have a hard time figuring out what exactly this president stands for. Fortunately, we have the benefit of observing his actions, so America has a pretty good idea where his real sympathies lie. The mainstream media touted the Michigan commencement speech as a blast back at the “anti-government” crowd and, with a small correction, that’s what it was. Despite the bromides, the president was clearly firing back at what should correctly be called the “small government” sentiment in America that is embodied by the tea-party movement. (“Anti-government” is a phrase that properly describes anarchists, not patriotic Americans protesting more bureaucracy, more spending, more debt and less self-determination).
Nobody outside of crazed militia types says, or thinks, that “government is bad.” Rather, millions of Americans believe that government is inefficient, expensive and stifling and should therefore be used as a means toward accomplishing an end only when absolutely necessary. “Absolutely necessary” can be defined as some of the examples that Obama cited: police officers, highway safety and the laws and regulations designed to prevent workplace injuries and promote environmental responsibility. There’s a role for government in all of these cases that no private entity could fulfill, but it should be self-apparent that we all pay a price when we employ government to do so.
Having police protect us requires a justice system and, the government being what it is, that justice system is necessarily bloated, inefficient and burdened by mountains of contradictory rules. We deal with OSHA and the EPA, because most of us realize that somebody has to do what some private companies won’t: ensure that both employees and the environment are protected. But again, we pay a price. OSHA may help prevent injuries, but it’s also enormously powerful and too often petty. The EPA has done a stellar job of cleaning up America, but the massive bureaucratic structure it created while doing so now intrudes in the operation of private enterprise in stifling ways that have little or nothing to do with environmental protection. It’s always that way. Once the nose of the bureaucratic camel pushes through the tent, you’ve got yet another dromedary for a roommate, and the basic problem is that there’s not much room left in the tent that used to be our private lives for more camels.
The crux of Obama’s defense of big government is that, in a democracy, the “government is us.” No doubt the president really believes that, because his entire working life has been spent working for the government, in academia or as an advocate for people trying to get more out of government. His “real world” experience, as those of us who work in the private sector understand it, is zero. Accordingly it’s no surprise when Obama doesn’t understand that for the majority of us in the private sector – who pay for the ever-expanding public sector, by the by – the government isn’t “us” at all. The government isn’t the people we actually elected, as the president styled it, the government is rather the army of nameless bureaucrats to whom the people we elected have bequeathed, and continue to bequeath, enormous power over our lives.
The liberal myth says that conservatives and libertarians trust the private sector and don’t trust the public sector. That’s not the case. The truth of the matter is that we don’t trust anybody. But, when it comes to excess in the private sector, at least we have a chance of winning. If some company rips off a consumer, the consumer can go to the Better Business Bureau, complain to the Attorney General, call the local media watchdog, or employ a vast number of other means to settle the score. If a consumer thinks that a particular corporation’s product is inferior, there’s a host of other companies willing to fill the need. But, when it comes to government excess, people don’t have any hope of leveling the playing field unless they’re very rich or very lucky. There is no protection from our protectors. Anyone who has been victimized by an over-zealous IRS agent, EPA official, OSHA inspector or any other member of the bloated, blustering bureaucracy that runs more and more of our lives knows exactly how stifling big government is.
So yes Mr. President, we understand that we need some government in our lives. The problem, as we see it, is that we have so much damned government that it’s getting harder and harder to breathe.