Fall 2008Vol. 3, No. 3

This article is from TOS Vol. 3, No. 3. The full contents of the issue are listed here.

McBama vs. America

As the 2008 presidential election nears, and while John McCain and Barack Obama struggle to distinguish themselves from each other in terms of particular promises and goals, it is instructive to observe that these candidates are indistinguishable in terms of fundamentals. 

On the domestic front, McCain promises to “take on” the drug companies, as if those who produce and market the medicines that improve and save human lives must be fought; he promises to ration energy by means of a cap-and-trade scheme, as if the government has a moral or constitutional right to dictate how much energy a company may purchase or use; he promises to “battle” big oil, as if those who produce and deliver the lifeblood of civilization need to be defeated; he promises to “reform” Wall Street, as if those who finance the businesses that produce the goods and services on which our lives depend are thereby degenerate; he seeks to uphold the ban on drilling in ANWR, as if the government has a moral or constitutional right to prevent Americans from reshaping nature to suit their needs; and so on.

Obama promises to socialize health care (under the tired euphemism of “universal health care”), as if insurance companies, doctors, and patients have no right to use or dispose of their property or to contract with one another according to their own judgment; he promises to increase the minimum wage, as if employers and employees lack those same rights; he promises to pour taxpayer money into “alternative energy,” as if the government has a moral or constitutional right to confiscate money from productive citizens in order to subsidize tilting windmills; he promises to force oil companies to fund government handouts to Americans, as if the owners of oil companies have no right to their property or profits; he promises to bail out homeowners who cannot pay their mortgages, as if the government has a moral or constitutional right to make some people pay for the financial mistakes or hardships of others; he promises to “incentivize” students to do “community service” by offering them taxpayer-funded college tuition, as if the government has a moral or constitutional right to do so; and so on.

In regard to foreign policy, McCain promises to “respect the collective will of our democratic allies,” as if America has no moral right to defend her citizens according to her own best judgment; and he promises to finish the “mission” of making Iraq “a functioning democracy” even if it takes “one hundred years,” as if the U.S. government has a moral or constitutional right to sacrifice American soldiers to spread democracy abroad.1

Obama promises to uphold the idea that “America’s larger purpose in the world is to promote the spread of freedom. . . . dignity, and opportunity,” as if we have a moral responsibility to minister to the uncivilized and the unfortunate across the globe; and he promises to negotiate with jihadists who chant “Death to America,” as if Americans will be safe from these lunatics when the lunatics give Obama their word.2

Looking past the particular programs of McCain and Obama, and viewing their goals in terms of the purpose of government presumed by these goals, we can see that both candidates hold that the purpose of government is to manage the economy, to regulate businesses, to redistribute wealth, to bring freedom or democracy to foreigners, and to defer to the will of others on matters of American security.

But this is not the proper purpose of government. Nor is it the purpose that America’s founders had in mind when they formed this great country.

A government is an institution with a monopoly on the use of physical force in a given geographic area. The proper purpose of government is, as the Founding Fathers recognized, to protect each individual’s right to live his life as he sees fit (the right to life); to act on his own judgment, free from coercion (the right to liberty); to keep, use, and dispose of the product of his efforts (the right to property); and to pursue the goals and values of his choice (the right to the pursuit of happiness). The way government achieves this vital purpose is by banning the use of physical force from social relationships and forbidding foreigners to physically harm citizens or their property. And, crucially, because government is an agent of force, it too must be prohibited from misusing force, which is why the founders wrote the U.S. Constitution, the purpose of which is to limit the power of government to the protection of individual rights. A proper government does everything necessary to protect individual rights and nothing that in any way violates individual rights.

This is the kind of government that was and is the American ideal. But it is nowhere to be found in the campaign materials or speeches of McCain or Obama. Whatever their differences, these two men are soul mates in their disdain for this ideal.

Why do McCain and Obama embrace the notion that government should manage the economy, regulate businesses, redistribute wealth, bring freedom to foreigners, and defer to the will of others on matters of American security? The answer lies not in their politics but in their ethics.

What one advocates in the realm of political philosophy depends on what one regards as true in the realm of moral philosophy. Should a businessman be free to keep, use, and dispose of the wealth he produces—or should he be forced to hand some (or all) of it over to those who did not produce it? The answer one gives depends on whether one thinks a person is morally entitled to the product of his effort—or morally obligated to serve others.

Should doctors, patients, and insurance companies be free to contract voluntarily with one another—or should the government dictate the terms of their agreements? The answer one gives depends on whether one thinks individuals have a moral right to act on their own judgment for their own sake—or a moral “duty” to sacrifice for their neighbors or “the poor” or society.

Should a nation’s leaders rationally, self-interestedly decide, given all the relevant facts, how best to defend their country’s citizens from foreign aggression and then act accordingly—or should those leaders selflessly defer to the judgments of leaders of other nations? The answer one gives depends on whether one regards acting on independent judgment as morally correct—or deferring to a “collective will” as the right thing to do.

Both McCain and Obama hold that being moral consists in self-sacrificially serving or deferring to others; thus, both hold that the individual—whether a CEO, a plumber, a doctor, or a soldier—must either sacrifice or be sacrificed for the sake of the “collective” or the “greater good” or the world at large.

“Glory belongs to the act of being constant to something greater than yourself,” says McCain.3 We “must devote ourselves to causes greater than our self-interests.”4 And such causes are to be found wherever people are in need: “Every place there’s a hungry child, there’s a cause. Every place there’s a senior without life-saving prescription drugs, there’s a cause. Everywhere there’s a child without education, there’s a cause. Everywhere in the world where there’s ethnic, tribal or age-old hatreds, there’s a cause.”5 Obama agrees, and adds: “We may disagree as Americans on certain issues and positions, but I believe we can be unified in service to a greater good. I intend to make it a cause of my presidency, and I believe with all my heart that this generation is ready and eager and up to the challenge. . . .” Americans must focus on more than “the big house and the nice suits and all the other things that our money culture says you should buy. . . .”6 We have “obligations towards one another.” The “problems of poverty, racism, the uninsured, and the unemployed are not simply technical problems”; they are “moral problems”; they are “rooted in both societal indifference and individual callousness. . . .”7 We must heed the “call to sacrifice”; we “need to think in terms of ‘thou’ and not just ‘I.’”8 We must “reaffirm that fundamental belief—I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper—that makes us one people, and one nation.”9

Observe that such paeans to sacrifice are not unique to these two candidates nor to this particular presidential race; they have been staples of every candidate, every race, and every president in recent history. George H. W. Bush sold his programs by trumpeting “an ethic of community service” and rhapsodizing about solving “pressing human problems” by means of “a vast galaxy of people working voluntarily in their own backyards.”10 Bill Clinton sold his agenda by telling America that “citizen service is the main way we recognize that we are responsible for one another” and by urging “every state to make service a part of the curriculum in high school or even in middle school” because “every young American should be taught the joy and the duty of serving.”11 And George W. Bush has accomplished his goals by telling us that “where there is suffering, there is duty” and that “Americans are generous and strong and decent, not because we believe in ourselves, but because we hold beliefs beyond ourselves” and that we must “seek a common good beyond our comfort” and “serve our nation” by “building communities of service.”12

American politicians trumpet the alleged virtue of sacrifice not only because they personally believe sacrifice to be a virtue, but also because doing so gets them elected—and because, once elected, it enables them to accomplish their corresponding goals in office.

Over the past few decades, Americans have consistently selected candidates and elected and re-elected presidents who call for self-sacrifice. Why?

Although America was founded on the principle of individual rights, Americans since the founding have increasingly embraced a moral code that is diametrically opposed to that principle: the morality of altruism, the notion that being moral consists in self-sacrificially serving others. We repeatedly hear: “Don’t be selfish”— “Put others first”— “It is more blessed to give than to receive”— “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country”— “Volunteer to serve in your community”— “Sacrifice for the greater good”—and so on. This is the morality that surrounded all of us growing up—and that still surrounds us. It is the morality taught in churches, synagogues, and schools; offered in books, movies, and on TV; and encouraged by most parents. And it is the morality by reference to which our presidential candidates build political platforms, clinch nominations, win elections, and govern the country.

Although few Americans strive consistently to practice the morality of self-sacrifice—because consistently acting in a self-sacrificial manner is wholly contrary to the pursuit of happiness—most Americans have, to a significant extent, accepted this morality as true. And because Americans generally want to do what they think is right, their consequent striving for virtue in this regard—and their corresponding support for political candidates who call for sacrifice—has been and is leading to the demise of America.

If we want to see the day when a presidential candidate calls for returning government to its proper function—protecting individual rights—then we must understand and embrace the moral foundation of that political principle, and we must demand that the politicians we support also recognize and uphold it. We must grasp and uphold the principle that being moral consists not in sacrificing or giving up one’s values, but rather in pursuing and protecting one’s values while respecting the rights of others to do the same. This is the basic principle of the morality of self-interest—and it is the principle that underlies and supports the American ideal.

The notion that the individual should sacrifice or be sacrificed for the “collective” or the “community” or the “greater good” is not noble; it is evil. It is the very idea that gave rise to communism, Nazism, and fascism. The communists said, “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” Adolf Hitler wrote:

This state of mind, which subordinates the interests of the ego to the conservation of the community, is really the first premise for every truly human culture. . . . The basic attitude from which such activity arises, we call—to distinguish it from egoism and selfishness—idealism. By this we understand only the individual’s capacity to make sacrifices for the community, for his fellow men.13

And Benito Mussolini championed

a moral law, binding together individuals and the generations into a tradition and a mission . . . a higher life . . . a life in which the individual, through the denial of himself, through the sacrifice of his own private interests . . . realizes that completely spiritual existence in which his value as a man lies.14

Yet this same idea is routinely championed by American politicians—whom Americans then elect to govern the country. This is why America is headed in the direction of statism.

It is time for Americans to denounce the morality of self-sacrifice as false, as anti-freedom, and as anti-America. It is time for Americans to discover and explicitly embrace the morality of self-interest, which is, in fact, the morality implicit in the American ideal of the right to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness. If enough Americans start now, by 2012 we may see presidential candidates begin to move in the direction of the American ideal. If, however, Americans fail to challenge the status quo, our future will be fraught with more McCains, more Obamas—and worse.

This November, I will abstain from voting in the presidential race and, instead, engage in intellectual activism.* I hope you will join me.

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*This sentence originally read: “This November, I will skip what would be a meaningless trip to the voting booth and, instead, spend that time engaging in intellectual activism.” That wording implied that I advocate abstaining from voting not only in the presidential election but also in lower-level races and on ballot measures, which is not the case. I have revised the sentence accordingly. —C. B.


1 “Allies key to McCain’s foreign policy vision,” March 26, 2008, http://www.cnn.com/2008/POLITICS/03/26/mccain.foreign.policy/index.html; “McCain Vision Has Most G.I.’s Out of Iraq by 2013,” May 16, 2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/16/us/politics/16mccain.html?emc=rss&partner=rssnyt; “McCain: 100 years in Iraq ‘would be fine with me’” YouTube video, January 5, 2008, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VFknKVjuyNk.

2 “Remarks of Senator Barack Obama to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs,” April 23, 2007, http://my.barackobama.com/page/content/fpccga/; Obama Envisions New Iran Approach, November 2, 2007,  http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/02/us/politics/02obama.html.

3 “Service to America: Address at Jacksonville, FL,” April 3, 2008, http://www.johnmccain.com/informing/news/Speeches/f4e9442b-18fa-489c-8255-9d323db42542.htm.

4 “Sharing stage, Obama and McCain split on abortion,” August 17, 2008, http://www.usatoday.com/news/politics/election2008/2008-08-17-mccain-obama-saddleback_N.htm.

5 “McCain asks voters to send a message,” March 6, 2000, http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/examiner/archive/2000/03/06/NEWS2612.dtl&type=election.

6 “Transcript Of Obama’s Wesleyan Commencement Address,” May 25, 2008, http://www.wfsb.com/news/16389467/detail.html.

7 “Obama Addresses His Faith,” July 6, 2008, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/07/05/AR2008070501854.html?wpisrc=newsletter

8 “One Nation ... Under God?”, http://www.sojo.net/index.cfm?action=magazine.article&issue=soj0611&article=061110; “Barack Obama on Principles & Values” http://www.issues2000.org/Social/Barack_Obama_Principles_+_Values.htm.

9 “Barack Obama’s Feb. 12 Speech,” February 12, 2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/12/us/politics/12text-obama.html?pagewanted=print.

10 President George Bush, quoted in Howard Radest, Community Service: Encounter with Strangers (Westport: Praeger, 1993), p. 8.

11 President Bill Clinton, radio address to the nation, April 5, 1997; radio addresses to the nation, April 5 and July 26, 1997, emphasis added.

12 President George W. Bush, inaugural address, January 20, 2001.

13 Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf, translated by Ralph Manheim (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1971), pp. 297–8.

14 Quoted in Michael Oakeshott, The Social and Political Doctrines of Contemporary Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1941), p. 164.