Arnold Kling  

The President's Roanoke Speech

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Reihan Salam points to two of the strongest reactions to President Obama's Roanake speech ("You did not build that"). Virginia Postrel writes,


The president's sermon struck a nerve in part because it marked a sharp departure from the traditional Democratic criticism of financiers and big corporations, instead hectoring the people who own dry cleaners and nail salons, car repair shops and restaurants

Postrel criticizes the President in light of Deirdre McCloskey's Bourgeois Dignity.

Yuval Levin writes,


The Left's disdain for civil society is thus driven above all not by a desire to empower the state without limit, but by a deeply held concern that the mediating institutions in society -- emphatically including the family, the church, and private enterprise -- are instruments of prejudice, selfishness, backwardness, and resistance to change, and that in order to establish our national life on more rational grounds, the government needs to weaken and counteract them.

I do not think that people on the Left would agree that this is what they believe. How might we reword Levin's characterization in order to make it more likely to pass what Bryan calls the ideological Turing test?

Perhaps: We (on the left) believe that the family, the church, and private enterprise are important institutions. We believe that government's role is to strengthen those institutions through proper regulation and provision of public goods. We do not resent the institutions of civil society, but we do reject the view that those institutions can thrive with only minimal government.

I do not think that it helps to characterize the Left as saying that the government "needs to weaken" the institutions of civil society. However, I think it is fair to raise a concern that the policies of the Left will have the effect of weakening those institutions.

I am less inclined than Levin or Postrel to read much into the Roanoke speech in terms of political philosophy or policy implications. My view of the Roanoke speech is that, as I wrote 16 months ago,


[the President] looks to me like somebody pouting in the wake of a blow to his ego.

My suspicion is that his need for adulation is not being satisfied and has not been for some time. That accounts for the ill-tempered tone that came out in Roanoke.

[UPDATE: I note Elizabeth Warren writing


I believe in small businesses. They're the heart and soul of our economy. They create jobs and opportunities for the future.

Pointer from Mark Thoma, and note that many commentators saw in the President's Roanoke speech an echo of a similar attack by Warren on businessmen's ingratitude.

I have argued that some of the very regulations that Warren favors, such as the consumer financial protection board, will end up favoring big banks, because competitive innovations will be stifled in the name of "consumer protection." This is a classic case in which I argue that big government is inherently anti-small-business, while she believes that with sufficient moral authority we can have big government that does not tip the scales in favor of big business. I do not see either of us changing our minds soon.]


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COMMENTS (19 to date)
AJ writes:

After years of reading Arnold's blogs, I'm relieved to have a point of disagreement. I was beginning to think we had separated-at-birth identical thinking on so many issues. Yuval Levin's comments make complete sense to me. There is much innanity on the left and it's not all about economics.

AJ

RPLong writes:

You can't pass a Turing Test with this, because the left objects to all characterizations of their own beliefs.

If you say progressives are socialists because they want to redistribute wealth, they object! If you point to where their views flirt with anti-Christianity and anti-Semitism, they object! If you point to where their views are contrary to basic capitalism, they object! If you remark that their views run counter to the intent of the US Constitution, they object!

The only way to characterize their views on terms they will accept is to state them in the vague, fuzzy language that they themselves use. You have to use nebulous terms like "fairness" and "social contract." You have to say that they respect capitalism "but" something.

They twist and squirm and resist every attempt to nail down what their position is. You're not supposed to state it outright. If you do, you're a big, judgmental meanie.

I'm not an Objectivist, but when Ayn Rand wrote all those scenes in "Atlas Shrugged" in which the leftist screams, "I didn't say it! I didn't say it!" she was really onto something. The reason her work endures is because her characterizations of progressives consistently rings undeniably true.

JeffM writes:

It is absolutely fair and accurate to say that Marxists consciously (and often overtly) seek to weaken religion, family, and the market. (However, I am not sure whether Marxists are more negative than Mises about the family; after all, Mises morally equated the family to slavery, which is at least as negative as the views of Engels on the "bourgeois" family.) In fact, in the Marxist Utopia, the market and religion would not exist, and presumably the family would be very different from the institution as it has been known historically.

Admittedly, most Leftists in the US today are not formally Marxists, not even "vulgar" Marxists. Their thought, however, has absorbed elements of Marxism. But you cannot adopt part of Marx; his thought is as close to an organic whole as human thought is capable of.

The average Leftist in the US gets from Marx the ideological view that the state (if run by the right people) will be both benevolent and superior in competence to other institutions. Thus for example, the average Leftist can truthfully say that, in principle, he or she is certainly not aiming to weaken the family as a social institution, but, in practice, the desires of the state are almost invariably preferred over the desires of any individual family.

Ken B writes:

For a not insignificant part of the Left
I suggest this: "Church, family, and profiteering are all patriarcal power structures used to bolster the status quo and oppress the majority. Of course they must be weakened."

Arnold wants something that will fit the more mainstream left, which I conced my formulation does not. How about this: "It isn't the idea of church or family or business we worry about, just the narrow definitions our society has of them, definitions based in sexism and racism. A more inclusive view is what we are actually working for. You call that weakening but we might call it broadening, even strengthening."

ThomasL writes:

Part of what rings false is the narrow application to business.

"You did not build that," said by a man who is president. Why is he the president? Did he accomplish that or did someone else?

If him, why is success in the political sphere attributable to himself, but in the business sphere it is attributable to someone else? If he did not accomplish his success, why should I listen to him? Where did it come from? Society and luck? The effect cannot be greater than the sum of its causes. If his causes were luck and civil society, and we all in the civil society benefit from the civil society, the remainder of his special position is do to luck. Luck is not moral authority, so I have no reason to listen.

Another example would be the Olympics. I think even Obama or Warren would be hesitant to suggest that the Olympians owe their success (or failure) to society and not to their own action. Olympic athletes often receive far more direct assistance through political institutions than does the average businessman, who benefits mainly indirectly from things like roads and law. Sports competition, like business competition, by its nature also involves a health dose of natural fortune and misfortune. By this reasoning, should not an Olympian's victory be even less attributable to his effort than the success of a businessman is attributable to his? And yet I do not hear that claim made anywhere...

Brian writes:

I think when it comes to politicians, what they believe and what they claim to believe are not always the same thing. Anyone that tries to guess what a politician believes based on what that politician says is not working with a full dataset. Actions speak louder than words.

txslr writes:

The thing that makes leftist ideology unique is its insistence that what might appear to be voluntary actions are, in reality, manifestations of power relationships, so that "normal" relations between people are often, if not always, oppressive. 

It may not appear to be the case for all on the left because they individually focus their attentions on specific varieties of oppression. So feminists attack institutions that undergird the "patriarchy" that holds them down (e.g. traditional marriage, traditional sex roles, etc.). Socialists seek to undermine those institutions that, in their view, enforce material inequality, such as private property rights, the sanctity of contract, etc. Environmentalists believe that humans are oppressing nature, which is believed to have rights of its own. Animal rights extremists belief that people are exploiting and oppressing animals and ignoring their rights.

So socialists are not opposed to a church that joins them in undermining private property, but feminists will insist that religion relinquish its beliefs regarding marriage and the sanctity of life. Feminists don't get too upset with contract rights, except where they are viewed as supporting the patriarchy as in employment or voluntary association. Environmentalists oppose private property, but won't necessarily attack the traditional family structure.

So individually these ideologies all seek to weaken the institutions of civil society, although not all in the same way. Put together, as they are in the modern Democratic Party, they constitute a broad assault on civil society, individual freedom and tradition.

Thucydides writes:

The "you did not build that" assault on business owners probably reflects Obama's awareness that he got through college and law school, and obtained political office all the way up to the presidency, not through his own merit, but through a variety of other factors, including unscrupulous politics, the eagerness of voters to support a black candidate, etc. So he tears down real achievement to make himself feel better.

Mike Rulle writes:

I agree with the sentiments of your readers on this one.

The Obama Warren syllogism is simply idiotic.

A)"You did not build it alone"

Well, who in their right mind thinks they did anything "alone". Plus, what does "not alone" have to do "with government"? No business man claims they do anything "alone". If they did, they would receive all the revenues (as there would be no expenses), not just their share of the profits after taxes.

B)"you did not build the bridges, roads or schools"

OK. But did Obama or Democrats build roads, bridges, or schools? Are Republicans against roads, bridges and schools? Is Obama head of the party of roads, buildings and schools?

c)"Therefore, it is moral and right to increase the size of government and raise business people's taxes, while Romney wants to eliminate government so the rich can keep all the money for themselves"

A and B, therefore C.

It is a complete non-sequitur. The irritating thing is the Romney Campaign insists on misquoting "you did not build that". The stupidity of what Warren and Obama actually said is far more ridiculous. Instead of engaging in ideological argument, they should be ridiculing them---the opportunity for effective ridicule is a rare event in politics. They are not taking advantage of it.

Stella Baskomb writes:

"I do not think that it helps to characterize the Left as saying that the government "needs to weaken" the institutions of civil society."

It may not "help" something or other, but I believe that is what institutions of government tend to do.

Today those institutions are controlled by the left. At some point they will again be controlled by the right. It doesn't matter who controls them. Whoever is in control, every governmental institution has, at least in theory, constitutional limits on its power. So for the ambitious people who run these institutions, the only way they can enhance their power is to weaken corresponding elements of civil society that "compete" with their institution.

Joe Cushing writes:

I think you have to clarify whether you are talking about the electorate or the politicians. Many in the electorate are ignorant and think big government policies that are hurting are helping. I used to think people like Obama meant well when they made these policies and were also just ignorant of good economics. I don't believe that anymore. I believe Obama is evil. He knows what he is doing and he continues to do so. He knew what he was doing before he got into office. So applying the phrase "the government needs to weaken and counteract them" is appropriate to Obama but not to most of the people. Obama needs to weaken them in order to grow his power. That's what he wants, power. When the people lose their ignorance, they leave the left and join the right. When they realize the right is no different from the left, they leave the right and join the libertarian movement. When the realize the libertarian movement is hopeless in a democracy, they take the final step towards beliefs in noncoercion and become anarchocapitalists. That's where I recently arrived. I'm tired of the trivial arguments of right and left and I know the libertarian state is impossible. Down with the state, down with all but private competitive government. I'm with David Friedman now.

PrometheeFeu writes:

I think a more "Turing-optimal" variation would include the following:

1) Churches, private enterprise etc only represent a small minority of the population while the government has the potential to represent the People as a whole. As a result, the government has more legitimacy to act.

2) Churches, privates enterprise etc are weak compared to government. As such, they are inadequate to deal with free riders and other public good problems.

Gian writes:

[Comment removed for repeated policy violations.--Econlib Ed.]

Harold Black writes:

Please explain to me how the government through "proper regulation and the provision of public goods" has strengthened the family, church and private enterprise? As you acknowledge, more times than not, the government (mostly from the left) has tried to weaken these institutions.

[broken url fixed--Econlib Ed.]

Slocum writes:

Obama was also expressing the common, almost instinctive disdain of those on the left (who aspire to spend their lives in government, academia, or non-profit organizations) toward business. They see lives lived in profit-making enterprises as an inherently lower form of existence. It's related to (probably just a continuation of) the English aristocratic attitude toward those 'in trade'. 'You didn't build that' can be correctly heard as 'You're not all that'.

Jeff writes:
The average Leftist in the US gets from Marx the ideological view that the state (if run by the right people) will be both benevolent and superior in competence to other institutions. Thus for example, the average Leftist can truthfully say that, in principle, he or she is certainly not aiming to weaken the family as a social institution, but, in practice, the desires of the state are almost invariably preferred over the desires of any individual family.

I think that gets it about right. Running roughshod over bedrock institutions is perfectly fine as long as you have a higher cause in mind, like "social justice" or "gender equity" or something.

As I recall, part of Jonathan Haidt's main thesis is that while there are six different moral foundations, liberals only really care about two of them, but they really, really, really care about those two. Maybe this explains what we see liberals getting up to all the time, blowing up the healthcare and education sectors of the economy (just to give two recent examples), whereas conservatives/libertarians (maybe) are more prone to weighing different and competing moral imperatives, leading them to take a less ambitious approach to public policy questions.

Just a thought. Hey, maybe that should be Haidt's next book.

Floccina writes:
he Left's disdain for civil society is thus driven above all not by a desire to empower the state without limit, but by a deeply held concern that the mediating institutions in society -- emphatically including the family, the church,

The big question to me is: Is it liberal to teach to evolution in area schools funded by area parents if the parents are strongly opposed to their children being taught evolution?

I say no and so do agree with Yuval Levin.
I think that the case is clear that those in power enforce their will. When protestants controlled the schools they push protestantism now the majority are agnostics and that is what is pushed in the schools. But that is un-liberal.

RJB writes:

I see I'm late to the party, but maybe someone will read this anyway. The OP and the comments seem to be ignoring two key elements of the context for Warren's and Obama's remarks.

First, many Republican representatives have signed a pledge not to increase taxes for any reason, which is both a cause and an effect of denying that public investment has great positive benefits.

Second, many Republicans (esp. those associated with the tea party) have been arguing, without nuance, that the wealthy are wealthy purely because of their own individual efforts and talents (and, of course, the poor are poor because of their own laziness and lack of talent). One of my favorite examples (which I use in teaching my students about the challenges of devising pay-for-performance plans) is Stuart Varney, in his interview of Robert Frank. Varney is "outraged" and "insulted" by the common-sense idea that hard work and talent may not be enough to guarantee success--you need to be lucky, too. That means that some talented people work hard and are not successful, and other untalented people don't work too hard and are successful. This is a fundamental point in the economics of compensation, and shouldn't be controversial--but it is.

People who think they fully deserve their own success are succumbing to one of the most well-documented behavioral biases: attributing their own success to themselves and bad outcomes to bad luck. People who think that others fully deserve their good or bad fortune are succumbing to another one: attributing others' fortunes to personal characteristics while underplaying the role of environmental features--including many that are provided by public investment.

I am glad that Elizabeth Warren did such a nice job articulating the value of public investment to those who work hard to use their talents. I wish Obama had spoken more carefully.

As a final point, a commenter above says

"I think even Obama or Warren would be hesitant to suggest that the Olympians owe their success (or failure) to society and not to their own action."

Really? What do you think of this quote?

"You Olympians, however, know you didn't get here solely on your own power,” said Romney, who on Friday will attend the Opening Ceremonies of this year’s Summer Olympics. “For most of you, loving parents, sisters or brothers, encouraged your hopes, coaches guided, communities built venues in order to organize competitions. All Olympians stand on the shoulders of those who lifted them. We’ve already cheered the Olympians, let’s also cheer the parents, coaches, and communities. All right! [pumps fist]."

The only thing controversial about this statement is that it undermines conservative churlishness over Warren and Obama's remarks, in words that otherwise would be viewed as unremarkable and even uplifting.

Ken writes:

RJB,

First, many Republican representatives have signed a pledge not to increase taxes for any reason, which is both a cause and an effect of denying that public investment has great positive benefits.

This is false. Did you ever consider that ALL Republican representatives recognize that some public investment has a great positive benefit, but think that the amount currently being taken from the private sector to be spent on government boondoggles is too large and actually causing economic and moral damage to Americans?

What you're saying is like saying an extremely obese man, who eats 10,000 calories a day who promises to not increase his caloric intake above 10,000 calories a day for any reason believes that eating has no great positive benefit.

Your second point seems to assume that there are only rich people and poor people and no middle class, despite a huge middle class in all Western nations. While it is true that some people do get rich through the additionaly factor of luck, most don't. And it really takes no onerous effort to be in the middle class. However, to be in the lowest income brackets in the US is a choice.

The most ignored fact by those on the left is that there are no poor people in the US. There are merely people who are less wealthy. Keep a little perspective and understand that an annual salary of $34K puts a household in the global 1%. With this knowledge in hand, the idea that being poor in the US is NOT an active choice is ridiculous. To become middle class and even to get into the global 1% requires only a willingness to show up for work on time and put in an honest eight hours here in the US. The median income for a high school drop out who works full time is $27K/year.

And lastly, the most galling point of Obama's and Warren's "you didn't build that" tripe is that they are using this to force ever more out of private citizens to pay for an obviously bloated, inefficient government. The "roads and schools" lip service is a bait and switch and are definitely NOT drivers of the US federal budget.

But the most important aspect of successful people that the left igores is that the others who are crucial in a person's success are other private citizens, with very little credit going to public employees. Additionally, these other private citizens, along with roads and schools, are available to everyone, not just successful people. If all it takes is other citizens providing help, as well as roads and schools, then EVERYONE would be as rich as those in the current 1%.

[broken html fixed--Econlib Ed.]

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