America’s chief source of power has been economic, and that power is chiefly created by the private sector. Most of our most productive people go into business: inventing, marketing, and manufacturing things and providing innovative services to improve other peoples’ inventing, marketing, and manufacturing. So it is a bit lamentable that both major presidential candidates speak like high school guidance counselors, creating a cult of “public service” without any acknowledgment of the nobility, or at least necessity, of much of what happens in the private sector.
Of course, private charity, military service, and concern for our communities and nation is important. Without some concern beyond self-interest, I do not believe well-ordered institutions alone could sustain a free America. But part of that concern and public spiritedness should consist of honoring the unique vigor and importance of the private sector, including the life-changing improvement in our lives that derives from actors in the business world. Without this, everything from life-saving drugs to color television would likely not have graced our lives; more important, without our dynamic economy, the government and the nonprofit world would not have the vast sums with which to wage wars, build damns, feed the hungry, put men on the moon, and pursue other projects that give both McCain and Obama a rush of satisfaction.
McCain’s romantic views of big government are well known, and were manifested in his obnoxious criticisms of Mitt Romney‘s lack of military service. I was glad to see the similarly naive and self-absorbed Obama and his praise of such dubious gigs as “community organizing” criticized today in an excellent piece by Jim Manzi.
At a time when there are children in the city of New Orleans who still spend each night in a lonely trailer, we need more of you to take a weekend or a week off from work, and head down South, and help rebuild. … Find an organization that’s fighting poverty, or a candidate who promotes policies you believe in, and find a way to help them.
This shared attitude is very worrying.
…all of us will have to use the energy sources we have more wisely. Deep-rooted poverty will not be reversed overnight,… Transforming our education system … Bringing an end to the slaughter in Darfur…
At a time of war, we need you to work for peace. At a time of inequality, we need you to work for opportunity. …
And so on.
This incorporates, but is not limited to, the normal helpful advice that a completely materialistic life is usually not the most fulfilling – “With all thy getting, get understanding”. But it also incorporates the assertion that the well-lived, or at least the best-lived, life must be one centered on engagement with political affairs or a social movement. (Though notably lacking on this long, long list of potential forms of service is any mention of the military.) While he throws an occasional rhetorical bone to the idea of responsibilities to jobs and immediate families, and certainly calls out homey service at a small scale to those nearest us as admirable, I challenge anybody to read this speech in full and not conclude that Obama is presenting a hierarchical view of human flourishing that sees becoming absorbed in something big and political like transforming American society, addressing global warming or bringing and end to the slaughter in Darfur as the highest form of self-actualization.
Ironically, Obama’s vision strikes me as quite narrow. While it is surely true that striving to overcome the innate tendency to self-love is an important part of what it means to become fully human for almost every person on earth, it does not follow that the highest form of this struggle for everyone is centered on political projects or organized social movements. It also doesn’t follow that society would be better if everybody devoted more of their energies to such crusades.
At the level of individual psychology, different people are different. Shocking as it is to professional politicians (and maybe readers of political blogs), most people don’t care a whole lot about big causes. If I devote my energies to starting and running my dry cleaning business and helping to raise my kids, am I a lesser person that my neighbor who works full-time at Human Rights Watch? Surely, it is more realistic and humane to think of a healthy society as a mosaic in which different people play different roles based on temperament and circumstance.
More importantly for a presidential candidate, at the political level, would the United States really be better off if everybody spent less time at the office and devoted more of it to ameliorating global warming, stopping the killing in Darfur and joining the Peace Corps? If the U.S. were not the largest and most productive economy in the world, it would not have the world’s most powerful military, it would not have the luxury of trying to solve problems from sub-Saharan Africa to the Middle East, it would not have created awe-inspiring collective achievements like getting to the moon, and the vast majority of poor households in America would not have already have TVs, cars and air conditioning.
Where do you think all of this wealth comes from? I’ll give you a hint: not from protest rallies, public-interest internships and petition drives. One thing that reliably motivates people to work hard and produce economic output is the promise of getting more money so that they can buy things they want (a.k.a. “the big house and the nice suits”). This isn’t quite as romantic as losing yourself in service to others, but it seems to work pretty well.
Obama is not alone in de-emphasizing this. His formulation of “it’s only when you hitch your wagon to something larger than yourself that you realize your true potential” is amazingly close to John McCain’s frequent invocation of “some purpose higher than self-interest”. While McCain obviously has a more militaristic view of this kind of service than Obama does, he also appears to me to find life in the commercial world as morally inferior to a life of public service.