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Obama's World of Social Justice

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December 6, 2012

Tags Free MarketsInterventionismPolitical Theory

In President Obama's much-discussed speech in Roanoke, Virginia, among his remarks on the source of success was his assertion that

If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you've got a business — you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn't get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.1

What is one to make of the president's celebration of the government's role in the personal pursuits of citizens and his diminishment of the causal connection between the productivity of individuals and the success of their pursuits? This essay locates the source of Obama's assertion in the influence on his thought of philosopher John Rawls's theory of distributive justice and philosophical pragmatism's theories of mind, self, and society.2 But I begin with what he asserts is the defining issue of our time:

Should we settle for an economy where a few people do really well and then a growing number are struggling to get by? Or do we build an economy … where everybody gets a fair shot, and everybody does their fair share, and everybody is playing by the same set of rules.3

The questions are to be expected from a president who believes that

When you are president … your job is to figure out how everybody in the country has a fair shot.… Your job as President is to think about how do we set up an equitable tax system so that everybody is paying their fair share, that allows us then to invest in science and technology and infrastructure, all of which are going to help us grow.4

As earlier statements in his career indicate, Obama's vision of paternalistic governance is the view he brought with him to the presidency. In 1998, as a first-term Illinois state senator, he argued that in order to ensure that "nobody is left behind," government systems must be more efficiently structured to "pool resources and hence facilitate some redistribution." While on that occasion he underscored his proposal with the declaration that "I actually believe in redistribution, at least at a certain level,"5 as president he uses such euphemisms as "investment," "giving back," "giving everyone a fair shot" or "fair share" and "economic patriotism" — all of which imply redistribution by another name.

At first glance the ideal of "fair shares for all" suggests the requirement of a political and economic framework based on Karl Marx's distribution policy of "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need."6 But Obama's conception of fairness is not of classic Marxist origin. As noted, it is more a reflection of philosopher John Rawls's theory of justice and pragmatism's varied perspectives of the self-society relationship.7 His vision is a version of the altruist-collectivist social contract that Jean Jacques Rousseau proposed as the solution to the problem of constructing a society of freedom divorced from property ownership, which he saw as the source of a war of all against all. His thought also includes the Progressive belief, as argued by William Allen White, that the solution to democracy's problem of unleashed self-interest lies in overcoming the spirit of commercialism with the spirit of sacrifice.8

The Rawlsian Community of Equals

Obama's vision is a response to the failure of the American economy to realize John Rawls's difference principle. In Rawls's theory, society is a well-ordered "cooperative venture" organized like a team for the mutual benefit of its members and regulated by "a public conception of justice" as "a set of principles for assigning rights and duties and determining the appropriate distribution of the benefits and burdens of social cooperation."9 Although members are all equal as human beings, some on the team have been favored by nature with talent, intellect, ability, incentive, and performance that gives them an advantage over others. They naturally want to protect their advantage. Yet because their advantage is the result of nature's "luck of the draw," they agree to a standard of justice as fairness (the difference principle) which allows them to gain from their good fortune but only to the extent that their advantage improves the lot of those who were least advantaged by nature's lottery. Writes Rawls, "The higher expectations of those better off are just if and only if they work as part of a scheme which improves the expectations of the least advantaged members of society."10

Since justice in the Rawlsian world proceeds from the legislative authority derived from the united will of the people (evidenced by their high level of conformity to the redistribution norm), the state can legitimately force redistribution, and the perception is that no injustice is done to anyone. This interpretation of the legitimacy of the state's forced redistribution is evident in the attitude of citizens like billionaire Warren Buffett who has the tax policy called the Buffett Rule named for him. As the White House describes the rule, "No household making more than $1 million each year should pay a smaller share of their income in taxes than a middle class family pays." It is presented as "a simple principle of tax fairness that asks everyone to pay their fair share."11 The president was probably thinking of Buffett and others when he said, "There are a lot of wealthy, successful Americans who agree with me — because they want to give something back."12 Although he acknowledges individual initiative, which the facts of his own biography impose on him, he defends the social-justice framework by justifying its redistribution policy as a "give-back" imperative of the "we're-all-in-this-together" society.

The Cultural Context

Obama knows from his education that a political-economic framework that can execute the redistribution standard requires a cultural context in which social actors are guided by a shared view of themselves as embodying a "community of attitudes" or "collective conscience," a concept that sociologist Emile Durkheim drew from Rousseau's view of absolute commitment to the general will. By collective conscience Durkheim meant the totality of beliefs, sentiments, values, customs, and norms common to average citizens that regulates the thoughts and actions of individuals.13 Rousseau argued that in order for people to be free from the dissensus caused by self-interest, inequality, and exploitation, there must be "an absolute surrender of the individual, with all his rights and all of his powers, to the community as a whole."14 The harmony and stability of the collectivist society envisioned by Rousseau and Durkheim depends on people viewing the constraints of society and the sovereign will of the state as the natural order of things. They must also transfer to civil society the commitment they had traditionally held for the sacred, and schools must teach children the importance of the political community's claim to their loyalty and of their commitment to the morality of the collective.

In Durkheim's view, commitment to the collective conscience is maintained through attachment and social regulation. Attachment to social groups and their goals, involving interpersonal ties and the perception that one is part of a larger collectivity, keeps people from becoming too "egoistic." Social regulation through political and legal controls, economic sanctions, and such instruments of control as persuasion, ridicule, stigmatization, gossip, opprobrium, and ostracism limits individual aspirations and needs, and keeps them in check. Through attachment and regulation the will of each individual is merged into the general will of his group or the larger community, creating social cohesion and unanimity, in which "the deliberations of any one person are typical of all." For Rousseau, the collapse of the boundary between private and public affairs would foster the commitment to public service as "the chief business of the citizens."15

The greater the emotional and intellectual investment individuals make in sustaining the collective conscience and seeking the reward of social approval through their conformity, the more concerned they are about forces such as differentiation of groups and inequality that can undermine their sense of belonging and their reliance on an integrated and stable social order they take for granted and experience as something other than a human product. Nobel Prize–winning economist Joseph Stiglitz voices this concern in his argument that the greatest cost imposed on American society by the wealthiest 1 percent is "the erosion of our sense of identity, in which fair play, equality of opportunity, and a sense of community are so important." It is their fault, he says, that "the chances of a poor citizen, or even a middle-class citizen, making it to the top in America are smaller than in many countries of Europe."16

Advantaged members who share Stiglitz's concerns and who want to avoid the loss of the community's respect for them will conform to the redistribution expectation; they will accept the definition of their rewards as a public resource and comply with the state's demand that they place them in service to the less advantaged through taxation and regulation. They will view their compliance with forced distribution as a duty of citizenship, an act of "economic patriotism," as Obama calls it, in the belief that doing so will contribute to the betterment of society. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, what Obama calls economic patriotism was referred to as "social responsibility," which the business community embraced as "corporate social responsibility."

A Cause Greater Than Self

In such an altruist-collectivist cultural environment that supports the statist framework of distributive justice, self-interest is erroneously understood to be necessarily in conflict with community.17 This false dichotomy has been a major theme in American political culture since the nation's founding, but has grown more intense during the last half century. The question it raises regarding the self-society dimension of American citizenship was most recently posed by former president Bill Clinton before the 2012 National Democratic Convention. The kind of country Americans want to live in, argued Clinton, depends on their choice between a "you're-on-your-own, winner-take-all society" and "a country of shared prosperity and shared responsibility — a we're-all-in-this-together society."18

In 2008, then-Senator Obama answered the question when he told the graduating class at Wesleyan University that their obligation to themselves was to recognize that "our individual salvation depends on our collective salvation." He then called them to public service "because it's only when you hitch your wagon to something larger than yourself that you realize your true potential and discover the role you'll play in writing the next greater chapter in America's story."19 The depth of Obama's belief in the altruistic ethic of serving a cause greater than oneself is evident in a letter to his daughters, published after his inauguration. His hope, he said, was that they would work to right the wrongs they see and give others the chances they've had. "Not just because you have an obligation to give something back to this country that has given our family so much … [but] Because it is only when you hitch your wagon to something larger than yourself that you will realize your true potential."20

In so saying, the president joined previous presidents who advocate the Christian-based ethos of the Progressive Era that one has a personal responsibility for the problems of others, and the New Deal's policy that a person's problems justify his claim to the right to use the power of the state to force others to take responsibility for his problems. He told the students at Wesleyan that his work as a community organizer was inspired by John Kennedy's famous invocation to "ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country." His hope for his daughters could have been just as easily voiced by President George H.W. Bush, who told the nation in his 1989 inaugural address, "We can find meaning and reward by serving some higher purpose than ourselves, a shining purpose, the illumination of a Thousand Points of Light.…We all have something to give."21 Obama's words also echo those of his rival for the presidency, John McCain, who wrote that "Love of country is another way of saying love of your fellow countrymen.… Patriotism is another way of saying service to a cause greater than self-interest."22

McCain's equation of sacrifice with patriotism was drawn, in part, from the code of "national-greatness conservatism" advocated by neoconservatives William Kristol and David Brooks. According to Brooks, this new public ethos balances the distinctions between individual rights and community prerogatives and "marries community goodness with national greatness." As a "unifying American creed" it will "reinvigorate the nationalism of Alexander Hamilton, Henry Clay and Teddy Roosevelt," promote virtues such as "duty, loyalty, honesty, discretion, and self-sacrifice," and inspire Americans to subordinate their narrow self-interest to the larger mission of the country's "national destiny."23

Since we can ennoble ourselves by freely choosing to assist others, one might think that, in calling students and his daughters to public service, Obama was encouraging the virtue of generosity. But he promotes generosity as an obligation to which others are entitled, not as the voluntary practice it is. As Tibor Machan points out, like other true virtues, generosity is binding on one not as an obligation to others, but "as a matter of one's own choice to live a full human life." We have moral responsibilities to others, argues Machan, " not because those who might benefit are entitled, but because of our choice to live human lives within the company of others."24 In Obama's perspective, as a member of the collective, an individual's moral worth is not sovereign but dependent on serving the welfare of the collective. Thus, he promotes the greater-than-self credo as a rationale that justifies redistribution by equating it with generosity and compassion.

Writes Machan:

Those who demand that "generosity," "charity, " "compassion," or "kindness" be legally secured by coercive governments — welfare statists, socialists, and to some extent communitarians — actually destroy the foundation of those moral virtues, by changing them from virtues into enforceable duties. They render the conduct as something the agent cannot choose freely, without being coerced.

The transformation of moral virtue into laws of coerced obligation by American presidents is evident in their use of tax dollars to finance various new federal bureaucracies to encourage the growth of volunteerism. Below are just a few of the vast network of bureaucracies promoting volunteerism erected by three of the former presidents and Obama that are essentially instruments of redistribution that taxpayers fund in the name of causes greater than themselves.

Read the entire monograph in PDF: "Sociological View of Obama's World of Social Justice."

  • 1. Remarks by the president at a campaign event in Roanoke, Virginia , July 13, 2012.
  • 2. John Rawls, A Theory Of Justice, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972. Rawls, John, "Justice as fairness: Political not metaphysical," Philosophy and Public Affairs, 14, 1985, 223–251. For an analysis of the influence of pragmatism, John Rawls' theory of justice, Oliver Wendell Holmes' legal realism and the social gospel on Obama's thought see: James T. Kloppenberg, Reading Obama: Dreams, Hope, and the American Political Tradition, Princeton University Press, 2010. For an analysis of Obama's inculcation of philosophical pragmatism during his time in Chicago as a community organizer, senior lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School, and as an emerging figure in Illinois politics, see: Bart Schultz, "Obama's Political Philosophy: Pragmatism, Politics, and the University of Chicago," Philosophy of the Social Sciences 39 (2), 2009, 127–173
  • 3. Remarks by the president at Lorain County Community College, Elyria, OH, April 18, 2012.
  • 4. "Pres. Obama on Romney and Bain," The Jed Report, Daily Kos, May 21, 2012.
  • 5. Brett LoGiurato, "New Leaked Obama Video from 1998: 'I Actually Believe In Redistribution' At A Certain Level," Business Insider, Septermber 18, 2012.
  • 6. Karl Marx, Critique of the Gotha Program, Marx/Engels Selected Works, Volume Three, Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1970, 13–30.
  • 7. John Rawls, A Theory Of Justice, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972.
  • 8. William Allen White, The Old Order Changeth: A View of American Democracy, New York: Macmillan Company, 1910, 29–30. Quoted in Richard Hofstadter, The Age of Reform, New York: Vintage, 212.
  • 9. John Rawls, A Theory Of Justice, 4–5.
  • 10. John Rawls, A Theory Of Justice, 75.
  • 11. "The Buffet Rule," Whitehouse.gov.
  • 12. Remarks by the president at a campaign event in Roanoke, Virginia, July 13, 2012.
  • 13. Emile Durkheim, The Division of Labor in Society, New York: Free Press, 1947, 79–80.
  • 14. Rousseau, Social Contract, 14.
  • 15. Jean Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract or Principles of Political Right, Chapter 3, Book XV, 1762, trans. 1782 by G. D. H. Cole.
  • 16. Joseph E. Stiglitz, "Inequality: Of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1%," Vanity Fair, May 2011. See: Joseph Stiglitz, The Price of Inequality: How Today's Divided Society Endangers Our Future, 2012.
  • 17. For analyses of this paradoxical character of American culture, centered around its philosophical conflict between individualism and collectivism, see: John W. Caughey, "Our Chosen Destiny," Journal of American History, LII (1965), 251. Michael Kammen, People of Paradox: An Inquiry Concerning the Origins of American Civilization. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1972, 114. Leonard Peikoff, The Ominous Parallels: The End of Freedom in America. New York: Stein and Day, 1982, 104–105, 118. E. J. Dionne Jr., The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent, Bloomsbury, 2012.
  • 18. Transcript: Bill Clinton's Democratic Convention Speech, September 5, 2012
  • 19. Katie Zezima, "Standing In for Kennedy, Obama Embraces Legacy," New York Times, May 26, 2008.
  • 20. Barack Obama, "A Letter to My Daughters: What I Want for You — and Every Child in America," Parade.com.
  • 21. The term "thousand points of light" was coined by speech writer Peggy Noonan, but originates in C. S. Lewis' The Magician's Nephew (1955) "One moment there had been nothing but darkness; next moment a thousand, thousand points of light leaped out … "
  • 22. John McCain, "A Cause Greater Than Self," McCain and Obama on Patriotism. Time, June 25, 2008.
  • 23. William Kristol and David Brooks, "What Ails Conservatism," Wall Street Journal, Sept. 15, 1997, A22. David Brooks, "A Return to National Greatness: A Manifesto for a Lost Creed," The Weekly Standard, March 3, 1997.
  • 24. Tibor R. Machan, Generosity: Virtue in Civil Society, Washington, DC: Cato Institute, 1998, 36–37.


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