What is Barack Obama’s vision for America? Here’s one telling clue. In a new interview with Rolling Stone, the president declares that the individualist credo of novelist-philosopher Ayn Rand misses “what’s best in America.”
Rand, who immigrated to America from Soviet Russia when she was 21, praised this country as “the greatest, the noblest and, in its original founding principles, the only moral country in the history of the world.”
America’s greatness, in Rand’s judgment, lay in the fact that it was the first nation in history to treat government as the individual’s servant rather than his master. As she put it, “All previous systems had held that man’s life belongs to society, that society can dispose of him in any way it pleases, and that any freedom he enjoys is his only by favor, by the permission of society, which may be revoked at any time. The United States held that man’s life is his by right . . . that a right is the property of an individual, that society as such has no rights, and that the only moral purpose of a government is the protection of individual rights.”
In America, the government’s only job was to protect the individual’s right to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness from violation by physical force or fraud. In this atmosphere of freedom, individuals flourished. From the founding through the beginning of the twentieth century, government kept Americans free to create, innovate, and compete, to keep the results if they succeeded, and to try again if they failed.
It was during this era that immigrants flocked here by the millions and America became known as “the land of opportunity” — not the land of handouts (there was no welfare state in America during this time) or of guaranteed success, but of freedom to make your own way without obstruction. Today the supporters of Big Government are fond of telling us that “a hungry man is not free.” Those who immigrated to America during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries knew otherwise. They arrived poor — even famished — but ambitious.
The results are a matter of historical record. Untold numbers went from rags to riches, while the great majority of individuals were able to live better than their parents and grandparents had. Average wages for workers, for instance, more than tripled during the nineteenth century while working hours declined by nearly a third.
Obama mocks this as a society where “you’re on your own.” But Americans during this era were not “on their own” in the lone-wolf, asocial sense he insinuates. Free Americans developed complex webs of association based on voluntary agreement. As Tocqueville famously observed at the time, “Americans of all ages, all stations of life and all types of disposition are forever forming associations. There are not only commercial and industrial associations in which all take part, but others of a thousand types.” There were businesses, charities, social clubs, private insurance agencies to protect against disease and injury, and a whole lot more. By limiting government, Americans unleashed voluntary association.
In a sense, however, Americans were “on their own.” Limited government meant that other people’s wants and needs were not your unchosen responsibility. The corollary was that you and you alone were responsible for securing your own wants and needs. You were responsible for developing the knowledge, skills, and traits of character you needed to earn a living. You were responsible for saving to meet life’s unexpected twists and turns. You were responsible for educating your children. You could ask for help from other people during hard times — but you could not demand it as a right. You were on your own.
That was not a bug but a feature: it meant that the bad choices of your neighbor didn’t constitute a claim on your time and wealth: you could go right ahead and focus on making something of your life, rather than be dragged down in the muck of his.
This is the America that Rand upheld and fought for. But Obama thinks this is not “what’s best in America.” Then what is? Basically, it’s everything that’s not distinctively American: entitlement schemes, rampant economic controls and regulations, and government infrastructure projects copied from other countries. For Obama, caring about others doesn’t mean respecting their freedom or helping them voluntarily when they hit tough times — it means enacting collectivist policies that restrict economic freedom and redistribute earned wealth.
In short, what’s best in America according to Obama is everything that came after the era when government’s power was limited by the principles of the Declaration of Independence.
That, not Rand’s individualism, is what’s truly un-American.