Addressing the Democratic National Convention on Tuesday night, First Lady Michelle Obama told audiences that, ultimately, her husband’s ambitious agenda is not political, but personal.
“In the end,” she said, “for Barack, these issues aren’t political—they’re personal.”
Barack, Michelle continued, “knows what it means when a family struggles. He knows what it means to want something more for your kids and grandkids. Barack knows the American Dream because he’s lived it—and he wants everyone in this country to have that same opportunity, no matter who we are, or where we’re from, or what we look like, or who we love.”
Needless to say, there couldn’t be a more glaring contrast between the Barack Obama who the First Lady described and the Barack Obama who recently informed America’s business owners that they owe their success to others (“You didn’t build that!”). But if it is the real Obama for whom we are searching, we need look no further than the latter.
Obama’s policies and utterances—like those of his fellow partisans within the Democratic Party—have an intellectual apparatus behind them that has been decades and decades in the making. Chief among its architects is John Rawls, a Harvard philosophy professor who achieved a well deserved reputation for being one of the twentieth century’s most distinguished polemicists for the welfare state.
Referring to their enterprises, Obama informed the country’s entrepreneurs that “you didn’t build that.” The President didn’t misspeak, as he now claims. Rather, he expressed a concept that is logically inseparable from the massive redistributive schemes that he favors and for which his intellectual counterparts like Rawls have intelligently—even if wrongly—argued for a long time.
In his influential tome, A Theory of Justice, Rawls asserts that whether a person is successful or not depends upon whether he has a surplus or deficit of “natural assets.” It also depends upon whether he is afforded opportunities for cultivating those aptitudes and talents. Obviously, though, no one did anything to deserve or earn either his endowments or his opportunities. This explains why we tend to refer to both as “gifts,” say, or “blessings,” or maybe just “luck.”
This is the concept to which Obama spoke when he now infamously said that business owners didn’t “build” their success.
Now, if no one deserves his success, then, Rawls reasons, no one has a legitimate claim against the government’s plan to “spread it around,” to paraphrase Obama’s words to Joe the Plumber in 2008. Since no one did anything to earn or deserve his aptitudes and opportunities, a person’s “natural assets” must be treated as a common stock upon which all citizens have an equal right to draw.
Translation: the government has the right to confiscate and redistribute a person’s fruits whenever it wants.
Rawls contends that individuals should indeed be at liberty to employ their talents and opportunities for their own purposes—as long as doing so benefits “the least advantaged.” This is only “fair,” Rawls explains, for just as no one deserves their success, no one deserves their failures. Both “the advantaged” as well as “the disadvantaged” are alike the products of factors beyond their control.
And whatever is beyond the power of one’s labors can’t possibly be deserved.
What this means, though, is that there are no limits to what the government can do with the fruits of a person’s natural assets. It also means that there are no limits to what the government can do with a person’s natural assets themselves.
This is the vision of Obama, Rawls, and the left.
Fortunately, for the rest of us, it is not supported by its own reasoning.
Rawls conflates that which is not deserved with that which is undeserved. Think about it: just because you may not have a belief in X, doesn’t mean that you disbelieve in X. Neither Aristotle nor Bill Maher believes in the divinity of Jesus. The difference between them is that Aristotle didn’t believe because he had never heard of Jesus (who wasn’t born until nearly 500 years after his death). Maher, on the other hand, knows about Jesus but rejects the notion of his deity.
Similarly, a person who steals $500.00 is undeserving of it. But one who receives it as a gift is not. The latter doesn’t deserve the gift—a deserved gift is a contradiction in terms. Yet he is not undeserving of it either. Moreover, at that point, it becomes his. That is, he is then entitled to do with it as he wishes.
Obama’s and Rawls’ reasoning for the welfare state is flawed. Sadly, however, this will not stop them from trying to grow it ever further.
Jack Kerwick received his doctoral degree in philosophy from Temple University. His area of specialization is ethics and political philosophy. He is a professor of philosophy at several colleges and universities in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Jack blogs at Beliefnet.com: At the Intersection of Faith & Culture. Contact him at email@example.com or friend him on facebook. You can also follow him on twitter.