In his recent speech in Kansas, President Obama accused Republicans of advocating “you’re on your own economics”—a philosophy that supposedly holds that “we are better off when everyone is left to fend for themselves and play by their own rules.”
The implication is that unless you favor raising taxes and levying stricter economic regulations, Obama assumes you want to leave poor people out in the cold. In contrast, the President promotes his own economic ethic in the following terms: “We are greater together than we are on our own.”
While Obama’s populist slogans may be catchy, they misrepresent the nature of free markets as well as the social effects of government redistribution.
Contrary to the President’s straw-man characterizations, the free market advocated by most conservatives isn’t a free-for-all. It requires the rule of law, the enforcement of contracts, and protection against fraud, corruption, and criminal activity. In other words, the free market relies on adherence to an agreed set of rules—the very thing Obama accuses it of subverting.
The free market also demands trust, cooperation, and communication. It requires discernment about what people are looking for and how best to provide it to them. In this sense, the free market engenders a focus on others—it entails searching for interactions that are considered mutually advantageous by both parties.
It’s true that within a free-market system some people will remain in need of material assistance (that’s true of all large-scale economic systems known to man). But the answer to this need isn’t primarily through forced government redistribution; it lies, in part, in voluntarily using the great wealth that free markets generate to create and sustain civil society institutions that improve lives.
The most effective ways to help the poor often come from churches, ministries, local businesses, and nonprofits, as the stories from our Seek Social Justice curriculum show. Because they can foster horizontal bonds of care and responsibility among members, these institutions are better equipped to provide the needy with a sense of supportive community—a sense of “we.”
In contrast, when Obama says “we are greater together than we are on our own,” the “we” he refers to is the nation-state, centered on the federal government. This is why he seems to measure care and compassion for those in poverty primarily in terms of government spending.
But when government assumes ever greater responsibility for the poor through redistribution programs, it tends to crowd out smaller local institutions, weakening their social role and authority. As a result, horizontal bonds among citizens tend to erode while vertical bonds between individuals and the state tend to grow tighter.
Ironically, Obama’s populist rhetoric actually betrays an underlying philosophy that weakens community-building institutions, leaving isolated individuals more likely to turn to the impersonal state to meet their needs. If Obama is serious about critiquing an on-your-own individualism—and instead promoting communities of mutual responsibility and care—he should begin by changing his rhetoric. We need a vision for America that incites less class warfare and dependence on government and encourages more economic growth and strengthening of civil society.