The optimistic sage who wrote The Audacity of Hope is pushing a program of despair, and American voters are catching on. As President Obama struggles in the polls, the country is ever more alive to the gulf between his uplifting rhetoric and the gloomy pessimism of his policies. That’s why the president would rather talk about just about anything these days other than his governing philosophy.
On the campaign trail, President Obama talks about Mitt Romney’s tax proposals, Mitt Romney’s investments, Mitt Romney’s binders, Mitt Romney’s dog. But when it comes to his own thinking, he is curiously laconic, and confines himself to slogans and platitudes. Occasionally, however, the mask slips, and the president tells us what he actually believes.
When he puts on his sunniest voice and hails the free-enterprise system as “the greatest engine of prosperity the world’s ever known,” Obama sounds like Adam Smith. But in a candid moment in his first debate with Mitt Romney, the president accidentally divulged his real thinking about how the world works. Government-directed programs, he said, deliver goods more efficiently than private competition can: “Every study has shown,” he argued, “that Medicare has lower administrative costs than private insurance does. . . . And private insurers have to make a profit. Nothing wrong with that, that’s what they do. And so you’ve got higher administrative costs, plus profit on top of that.”
President Obama, in other words, believes that profit—the pursuit of which drives the American economy—is a liability. There’s nothing wrong, he says, with competing for profit—except that such competition inflates costs and doesn’t deliver goods as efficiently as a government program does. Right—and I have tickets to the upcoming centenary celebration of the Bolshevik Revolution, “A Hundred Years of Ever Greater Abundance Through Government Programs.”
President Obama has said that The Wealth of Nations is among his favorite books. He seems to have overlooked the passage in which Adam Smith says that it “is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” He seems, too, to have skipped the page where Smith says that “by pursuing his own interest” a man “frequently promotes that of society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it.” Ditto the chapter in which Smith argues that where people are free to pursue their own interest—their own profit—the result is a “universal opulence which extends itself to the lowest ranks of the people.”
Yes, Smith did point to the need for government to use tax revenues to build schools, bridges, and such other infrastructure as a flourishing market economy needs. But it would be perverse to use Smith’s work to justify the grandiose interventions in the marketplace President Obama and other modern liberals advocate: their policies more closely resemble the dirigiste command regimes proposed by the French statesman Jean-Baptiste Colbert than they do the classical liberal ideas of The Wealth of Nations. Smith, too, was conscious of the way the progress of markets and the specialization of labor, if not counterbalanced by a devotion to other virtues, impoverish human character and disfigure the human soul. But liberal policies that undermine the market’s ability to deliver goods and services efficiently do nothing to meliorate the moral and cultural problems associated with market-based order.
Imprisoned in medieval notions of profit and competition, President Obama is unable to share Smith’s optimism about the future. Instead he channels the pessimism of the English clergyman-turned-economist Thomas Malthus. In 1798 Malthus, the curate of a parish in Surrey, published a book in which he argued that given the world’s limited resources, man’s passion to propagate will always leave the poorest people at the edge of subsistence. For Malthus, Smith’s belief that freedom and innovation can create new wealth was a monstrous heresy. The innovations in technology that became known as the Industrial Revolution had, Malthus said, “little or no tendency to better the condition of the labouring poor” or give them “a greater command of the necessaries and conveniences of life.”
In the dismal Malthusian world, the only way to better the condition of the poor, albeit temporarily, was to redistribute existing wealth through social-welfare programs. (England’s Elizabethan-era poor laws were among the first attempts to create a modern welfare state.) Malthus, however, opposed efforts to share the wealth: the dole, he believed, was the most deceptive of boons, for it encouraged its beneficiaries to beget children they could not afford, and compounded the misery it was intended to alleviate.
Like many liberals today, President Obama is a neo-Malthusian. He accepts the Malthusian premise that free markets don’t produce a “universal opulence.” The way to mitigate the plight of the poor is not through profit-driven economic innovation—a hopeless mirage—but through the redistribution of existing wealth. Thus, the policies the president pursued in his first term. He sought to spread the wealth through tax hikes and restrict the role of free enterprise—pushing for a government takeover of health care, the Dodd-Frank legislation that insulates Wall Street from market pressure with a new “too big to fail” policy, and an auto bailout that subsidized uncompetitive performance.
In contrast to Adam Smith, who argued that it was folly for statesmen to “direct private people in what manner they ought to employ their capitals,” President Obama believes that philosopher-kings in Washington can invest capital (absorbed by the government through taxation) more wisely than those who actually accumulated the capital in the first place. Result: Solyndra. Never having taken to heart Smith’s vision of a “general plenty” made possible by private enterprise, Obama is not embarrassed to portray an anemic GDP growth rate (said to have climbed to 2 percent in the third quarter) as evidence of an economic “recovery,” nor is he fazed by the more than 46 million Americans now relying on food stamps for subsistence.
Ah, food stamps. Here modern liberals like President Obama part company with Malthus. They overcome the problem that perplexed Malthus—that of public doles that lead to overpopulation—with subsidized birth control. Not surprisingly, the president has made free contraceptives and unlimited abortion central to his campaign.
Obama’s pessimism is not, to be sure, the existential despair of Schopenhauer, who said that the purpose of life is death. But it’s clear from the glumness of his policies that he doesn’t expect to hear America singing again any time soon. He affects to channel Emerson, whom he has called a favorite author. But his blueprint for America’s future is as un-Emersonian as it is un-Adam-Smithian. Unhitch your wagon from the star, the president seems to say. Get by instead with a government-subsidized Chevy Volt.
Only in the bleak world of the neo-Malthusians is the president’s pessimism justified. The history of the last two centuries has vindicated Smith and refuted Malthus. Citing historian Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, Matthew Taylor, who directs the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, points out that “the global population increased fourfold in the 20th century but per capita resource consumption multiplied nineteen fold.” Such an embarrassment of riches would seem to refute Mathus’s pessimism. But neo-Malthusians contend that the most important of the advances that made this brave new world possible—energy derived from fossil fuels—was a lucky break, one that has enabled man only temporarily to evade nature’s Malthusian laws.
The modern Left would seem to agree. Indeed the Left goes a step further: “green” liberals argue that the fossil-fuel bonanza should be shut down even if it’s not yet out of prosperity-producing gas. Thus President Obama’s war on coal, his dream of a draconian carbon tax, his ambivalence about oil drilling, and his refusal to permit the northern part of the Keystone Pipeline to be built.
Whatever the president proclaims publicly, his program is a testament to his belief that we have reached the ne plus ultra of prosperity: the end, not of history, but of progress. In a stagnant world, the enlightened statesman can but divvy up an insufficient pie.
Modern liberalism is not the first political philosophy to rest its case on doom and gloom, and it is unlikely to be the last. But until liberals offer more compelling evidence that the era of heroic growth is indeed at an end (and has not been merely artificially depressed by excessive government interference), the reasonable observer will hold with Francis Bacon: we know too little about future possibility to be justified in the adoption of a dogmatic glumness. Bacon, when pressed for “forecasts of the works that are to be,” replied “that the knowledge which we now possess will not teach a man even what to wish.”
Francis Bacon was an American-style optimist ahead of his time. Barack Obama is a Malthusian pessimist trying to be president of the wrong country. After four years of his melancholy leadership, Americans are ready for some sunshine.