Arnold Kling  

Obama thinks we can be perfect (?)

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My guess is that Barack Obama just casually made this remark.

I believe in our ability to perfect this union because it's the only reason I'm standing here today.

I suppose that to most people, this is just another nice, feel-good statement. But it alarms me. The desire for perfection is an excuse for endless intervention. Although earlier in the speech, Obama said,
"I trust the American people to realize that while we don't need big government," perfectionism justifies unlimited increases in government power. If every flaw is curable, then it follows that we need to give government all the power it needs to implement the cure.

Remember when I was suggesting ideas for Libertarian Folk Songs? Check out "The New State of Perfection." Unfortunately, what I wrote as satire sounds frighteningly close to Obama's speech.

Thanks to Stephen Bainbridge for pointing out the Obama remark.

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COMMENTS (24 to date)
liberty writes:

Doesn't "perfect" as a verb really just mean "improve"? I would take him to mean simply that we can improve the state, make better policy.

This is indicated by his saying that the fact that he is standing there today is evidence that we are capable of perfecting or improving things. (Although I disagree with that assertion).

Bob Knaus writes:

C'mon, Arnold, you're of an age where schoolchildren were made to memorize the Gettysburg Address. Obama is just referencing that linchpin of American oratory, that's all.

We could do far worse than have presidential candidates who mold themselves after Lincoln.

GU writes:


Take your logic and shove it! Just listen to the rhetoric and feel comforted by this man's words of hope!


Psychohistorian writes:

"Perfect" means to improve. I sincerely doubt he thinks he can make society "perfect," particularly as that doesn't mean anything.

Methinks you're trying too hard.

This is precisely what old-school Marxists believed: in the perfectability of mankind. Worse, they believe that they are the ones who can perfect us all. Just got to get rid of those pesky people who don't fit it -- or re-educate them.

Richard writes:
If every flaw is curable, then it follows that we need to give government all the power it needs to implement the cure.
In addition to the apt criticisms from other commenters, it's also worth noting that this doesn't "follow" at all.

Perfectionism doesn't justify unlimited power, at most it "justifies" it, in the fake sense that some confused people will mistake it for a justification, or attempt to use this as a justification, or some such.

But all sorts of true views can be misused as fake "justifications". (Think genetics and IQ.) So I don't think you can consistently endorse this style of alarmed PC pseudo-criticism.

Robinson writes:

"C'mon, Arnold, you're of an age where schoolchildren were made to memorize the Gettysburg Address. Obama is just referencing that linchpin of American oratory, that's all."

I'm not sure what you mean about that- the phrase "a more perfect union" isn't from the Gettysburg Address, it's from the preamble to the Constitution.

Paul Gowder writes:

What Bob said, only it's not the Gettsyburg address, it's the preamble to the Constitution. You know:

We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

So give Obama a break, will you?

Brian writes:

See William Safire on "perfect." It's just a quest to get better, which I don't think anyone would dispute

Arnold Kling writes:

I understand that Obama was using "perfect" as a verb, not as a noun. But I don't see what that changes. As long as we think that politicians should be in the business of "perfecting" our country, then we will lean toward granting them ever larger power.

I can name several policy objectives for which the Obama camp justifies more government power. I cannot name any for which it justifies less.

rubemode writes:

Arnold, your statement makes a logical fallacy. Even if Obama intends to "perfect" the union, that doesn't mean the strive for perfection is necessarily going to come from more government. Maybe he lets the market cure a flaw or two by removing some of the government shackles already in place.

mgroves writes:

"Maybe he lets the market cure a flaw or two by removing some of the government shackles already in place"


The phrase is "a MORE perfect union," not "a perfect union." The idea is that it's a better one than the one previously established (the Confederation). So we should not give Obama a break. He's a utopianist, and those who believe in the possibility of achieving perfection have proven themselves to be dangerous (but only if you believe all of human history).

Randy writes:

I caught that phrase too, and I agree, it is frightening. The good news is that perfectionists tend to encounter resistance. I figure that my role in a perfectionist society is subtle subversion - to throw sand in the gears when no one is looking.

jb writes:

rubemode, you've definitely won funniest comment of the week!

rubemode writes:

I knew my comment was idealistic, as was Obama's, but I didn't realize I wrote stand-up. Glad to know I can still make people laugh.

cyates writes:

Troy -

The 'perfect' in "a more perfect union" is an adjective. The 'perfect' that Obama used is a verb, meaning 'to make more perfect.' Several people have pointed this out already, are you being willfully ignorant?

Just because one can verb an adjective that does not mean the meaning is changed. In fact, if we look at the verb form, "to perfect" means "to bring to perfection or completion." "Perfe ction" is "the quality or condition of being perfect." Which brings us back to the adjective form, which means "being without defect or blemish" or "pure." So if we transform the sentence to fit these definitions, we get "I believe in our ability to make this union without defect or blemish . . ." I'm not the one being willfully ignorant.

cyates writes:

I'm quite sure that if you asked Obama if it would be possible to make the country perfect, he would respond in the negative. Assuming this is true, doesn't that put his quote in context, especially given the ambiguity of the definition that this thread highlights?

Clearly it wasn't a Freudian slip, just a convenient way to play on the words of the Constitution to advance a 'progressive' agenda. It doesn't imply that Obama is a utopian.

Dezakin writes:

Expect the quality of this and many other blogs to drop substantially the closer to the election we get, as people vye for any politial shot that can be taken in what ever context possible.

The fact that Obama has the most Leftist voting record in the Senate tells me quite clearly he's a utopian. Of course, nobody knows anything about what he stands for, because he has quite carefully avoided actually saying anything of substance. Listen to his speeches. He lists problems, then declares we need to embrace hope (which for him is really glassy-eyed optimism), and leaves everyone feeling excited, though he in fact said nothing of substance. It's been good enough to fool just enough Democrats (who as a group tend toward utopianism) to get the nomination by a hair (so it seems), but I wonder how far he'll get with that approach in the general election. Of course, if McCain leaves his record unchallenged (as he's suggested he will), Obama might just get away with it, and get into the White House having run a campaign on absolutely no substance. And that's not something I want to see happen -- it doesn't bode well for democracy to have someone win with a completely substanceless campaign. I think it's bad enough he fooled that many Democrats into voting for him.

Bill writes:

Maybe he was using it more as a legal term. "Perfecting" something in a legal sense does not mean that the thing has no flaws or is perfect, but rather that you did a good enough job so as to successfully accomplish whatever you're trying to accomplish.

For example, you can perfect service against somebody by making him sufficiently aware of the suit you filed against him so that a court will find that he was served. Also, you could perfect a judgment against somebody, meaning in addition to prevailing in court, you made sure a valid order was signed by the judge and saw that it was properly docketed with the court so that you can now go about collecting on that judgment.

He's a lawyer, so this interpretation is plausible. I think he's saying that we are united in name (the United States), and he believes we can become united in fact.

Vague, I agree, but I don't think that quote shows he is trying to say that he could make the Union itself perfect, only that he thinks he/we can perfect the union.

I don't think Obama is that careless with words as to use a legal term in a speech. Probable? Perhaps. But highly improbable.

Question: Why are so many people so determined to give Obama the benefit of the doubt, no matter what he says? He said he's visited 57 states, and people are saying, "Well, he must have been tired." These same people are the ones who still make fun of Dan Quayle for telling the student that "potato" was spelled with an "E" at the end -- when the fact is that it was misspelled on the card he was holding in his hand.

I've discovered that its best to assume stupidity and/or villainy when it comes to people who run for office -- I'm far less disappointed in them when I do.

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