At a post-debate Denver rally, President Barack Obama spoke to a crowd of 12,000 people. He made a few jokes about Mitt Romney’s record, talked about parts of his record omitted from the debate and claimed that during the debate he was talking about … some term I hadn’t previously heard. He claimed that he was talking about “economic patriotism.” He used the term in reference to using economic or government power to achieve ends that he believes are beneficial to the people of the United States.
The idea that economic power should serve vital national interests isn’t new. During World War II, the government made efforts to sell war bonds. They weren’t the greatest investment on the market, but buyers were guaranteed to make a 4 percent minimum return. For many citizens, putting money into defeating both the Nazi regime and Imperial Japan (who sucker-punched us at Pearl Harbor) made up for the potential difference in long-term value. This, however, is a far cry from what Obama seems to be talking about. Even in those rough times, the government was asking people to buy war bonds. A war was tearing the world apart and it was up to those with money whether or not to provide for the war effort. Though taxes did rise, bonds accounted for nearly three quarters of total federal spending during the war years (1941-1945). Obama’s remarks, along with Biden’s insistence that paying higher taxes is patriotic, point to a serious change in mentality concerning the private wealth of citizens.
The United States was founded on the idea of being a land where each person had the right to pursue his or her own happiness. This distinctly Aristotelian idea highlighted the principle that one’s own pursuit of happiness is the necessary moral purpose of every human being. Therefore, the proper role of government is to protect the rights of its citizens and its highest good consists of its citizens pursuing said happiness freely and justly. In such a system, one’s achievement of his or her dreams is the truest and most valid moral end in and of itself. For example, if I set up my own consulting firm or toy store or charity, then it exists with moral validity because I and those who work for me are working to achieve our own ends. It has moral validity for this reason alone. My company’s existence is not made valid by any other party, be it a plurality of citizens or a government official. This is the only valid meaning of economic patriotism, and it is a concept that neither party really seems to understand.
The Democrats, particularly Obama, are those most obviously lacking. As the banks continued to repay their loans post-TARP, Obama insisted that it was their job to prove their worth to the American people: “Now that they’re back on their feet, we expect an extraordinary commitment from them to help rebuild our economy.” This ties in with the issues of cronyism (see my previous article), and it also highlights his underlying belief that the banks exist because of their ability to help others, that they are morally valid as a necessary evil meant to help others achieve their ends. Biden’s remarks about paying higher taxes being patriotic underscore a belief that the rich are obligated to pay for the causes of others. In this context, he means paying primarily for bloated entitlement programs and our military’s failed attempts at nation-building, neither of which are necessary roles of government.
Similar beliefs are visible in the Democratic Party’s constituencies. In Jersey City, longshoremen unions are rallying against the company known as Global Container Terminals. Global plans to automate several processes that will result in job losses, as the new automation will require fewer employees to stack shipping containers. The union workers are no longer providing a useful service, but are demanding that the company not modernize and rather continue to pay them. They are demanding that the company put the interests of the union workers ahead of its own.
Though the Republicans generally appear to side with business, they too fall into the trap of validating capitalism through its societal benefits. It is true that private charity has done a lot for the world, and that free economic growth adds to the prosperity or all people in the long run. However, the Republicans come dangerously close to making the societal benefits a primary justification, rather than a result. In failing to champion capitalism the right way, Republicans have allowed America to become the nation we see now.
America is in dire need of more champions for true economic patriotism, people who followed their dreams for their own sake and no one else’s. It needs people who, when incredulously asked if they hold their own good above the good of others, reply “I hold that such a question can never arise except in a society of cannibals.”
Michael Cook is a Pratt senior. His column runs every other Monday.