The Ranting Kraut

19.3.2006 – 27.9.2010

Communitarianism, Obama and The Economist

Posted by rantingkraut on April 23, 2009

The Economist’s Lexington column  discusses ‘Obama hatred‘ and turns out to be summarily dismissive of Obama’s critics (see also here). Obama is arguably the USA’s first outspokenly communitarian president, so concern over this new brand of collectivism hardly belongs on the lunatic fringe.
One of the articles The Economist shruggs off is Quin Hillyer’s essay in the American Spectator titled “Il Duce, Redux?“. It makes some points similar to the ones this blog made about New Labour a while ago. Some arguments in this piece are indeed debatable: Obama’s economic interventionism, for example, can just as plausibly be attributed to a desparate attempt at fighting off depression as to an ideologically driven desire to rule the economy. Other points are harder to dismiss:
Again and again, Obama has called not just for a change of policies, but to “change America” or to “remake” this nation. And here, from his national convention speech last August, is his notion, his collectivist notion, of change: “That’s the promise of America — the idea that we are responsible for ourselves, but that we also rise or fall as one nation; the fundamental belief that I am my brother’s keeper; I am my sister’s keeper.”
Well, no, not when it comes to state power. Government should have no authority to make us be our brothers’ “keepers,” lest the state itself become Big Brother. Obama said that “mutual responsibility” is the “essence of America’s promise,” but that’s not in any Constitution or Declaration of Independence I can find. Oh, yes, voluntary mutual responsibility is essential for a healthy civic society — but if government starts determining the shape of that responsibility and forcing it upon us, that is where freedom starts to fade.
” (source)
Concern about an expansion in directive state power is hardly crazy. In placing this concern in a critique of the communitarian ascent to power, Quin Hillyer comes very close to an argument The Economist made when discussing the rise of communitarianism almost 15 years ago:
“… communitarians are by no means content to preach to individuals. They insist that
their programme is at least partly a programme for government. At once, the character of the
discussion changes. It is no longer permissible to assume that consensus exists among the
members of any putative community, as it would be if everybody was a volunteer. It becomes a
matter of the first importance, once the coercive power of the state is involved, to ask how
dissent will be dealt with.
This is the heart of the matter. Western liberalism, as a philosophy and as a constitutional
blueprint, is chiefly concerned with this very question. Its answer, in the simplest terms, is that
the individual comes first: every man should be free to seek happiness in his own way, so long
as he harms nobody else
.” (source: The Economist (Dec.1994) “The Politics of Restoration” p.33-36)
The concerns of Obama critics then are very similar to the concerns The Economist used to raise not too long ago. What this shows is not so much that those who disagree with Obama’s brand of communitarian authoritarianism have gone off the rails, but rather that this new collectivist paradigm has now become the mainstream position in western politics. The Economist apparently is determined to join in this collectivist revival.

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