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Not Interested in the Peace Corps? Way to Ruin America

A bit more than a week ago, Barack Obama stepped in to take Ted Kennedy's place as the Commencement speaker at Wesleyan. Liberal commentators like James Fallows, Matthew Yglesias, and Ezra Klein raved about the speech — particularly the section … Read More

By / June 2, 2008

A bit more than a week ago, Barack Obama stepped in to take Ted Kennedy's place as the Commencement speaker at Wesleyan. Liberal commentators like James Fallows, Matthew Yglesias, and Ezra Klein raved about the speech — particularly the section where Obama called on the new graduates to enter national service:

[I]t’s only when you hitch your wagon to something larger than yourself that you realize your true potential and discover the role you’ll play in writing the next great chapter in America’s story.

It's stuff like this that constitutes the tiny (repeat: tiny) kernel of truth to what Jonah Goldberg says. The idea is that a life unmarked by the sacrifice of individual interests, desires, and aspirations to a collective good, is a life unfulfilled. Which is simply false: There are as many ways to lead a flourishing life as there are people living, and though some people may find their greatest possible satisfaction in collective pursuits, others won't and there is nothing wrong or lesser about that. Each of us is staggering around in the dark looking for meaning. The paths we go down are our own to decide; if we choose the wrong path, at least we chose for ourselves. As long as someone doesn't violate the rights of others in her pursuit of flourishing, she doesn't require the approval of the crowd to continue her pursuit in the manner she decides is best for her. And it's up to the government less than any other person or institution to confer approval or disapproval on any particular pursuit of flourishing.

Obama made a related argument that declining to subordinate one's life to a higher good amounts to a decision to "narrow your concerns and live your life in a way that tries to keep your story separate from America's." This, too, is wrong on the facts. There is nothing a priori noble about joining the Peace Corps or a community service project rather than joining the private sector. Some people will make the former choice out of sheer altruism, others in order to lay the foundations for a political career; likewise, some people will go into business out of sheer greed, and others because they're doing what they love and makes them happy. Moreover, there is no essential conflict between living a private, for-profit life, and improving life in your community or nation. The private sector researcher who discovers a vaccine for HIV will become a very rich man or woman — and will have done more to improve the quality of human life than almost anyone else in history. The great Norman Borlaug, perhaps the most undersung hero in our history, is estimated to have saved over one billion lives through his agricultural research. That's even more impressive — and more valuable a contribution to human society — than helping organize workers fired from Chicago steel mills.

At least for Obama, sacrificing one's individuality for the sake of collective good doesn't seem to mean much more in practice than giving up a few prime income-earning years to community service projects. John McCain agrees with Obama's general sentiment — "[g]lory belongs to the act of being constant to something greater than yourself," he says — but for him, the call to national greatness seems to entail leaving behind part or all of one's body on a foreign battlefield.

So whoever wins the election, come January, we can look forward to a president spouting collectivist, authoritarian claptrap. The choice is (a) a leader who rhetorically inflates stuff white people do in their gap years into world-historical, Hegelian acts of self-sacrifice, or (b) a leader who thinks the only worthy way to live is by dying in battle and going to Valhalla, and leaves little doubt he'll offer the young people of America the opportunity to do just that.

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