Calling Obama's Fairness Bluff
Several deflectionist strategies are available to a politician seeking re-election despite a performance record that would have gotten him fired in private industry:
(1) Argue that the dire situation in the country is someone else's fault.
(2) Explain that the problems are much too great to be solved so quickly.
(3) Deploy a slogan that has the potential of backing the opponent into a corner.
The Obama administration held on to (1) for the longest time, blaming President Bush whenever it was convenient to do so, but now realizes that it's getting much too late in the day for this gambit to be believable.
Resorting to maneuver (2) won't work either for the obvious reason that Obama's performance record is so abysmal that he would have no credibility whatever to claim he's the right man to fix the problems he created or made worse.
The trick to option (3) is conjuring up a motherhood-and-apple-pie sort of catchphrase. Obama told us what the mantra would be during the State of the Union: Fairness. Bob Schieffer confirmed with a smile at the end of last Sunday's Face the Nation, implying correctly that Mitt and Newt have yet to come up with something comparable.
You have to admit this is a clever ruse. After all, if you're for fairness you get to occupy the moral high ground and can paint the opponent as a bad guy by definition for being on the side of unfairness. Repeated often enough -- it will be, just you wait -- this logically fallacious argument can cause damage that is hard to repair in a timely manner.
The author of this nifty campaign concept could be just about anybody in a White House with as many resident spin doctors as this one -- except the chief occupant, who must be spoon-fed lines on a teleprompter and gets in trouble as soon as he wanders off-script.
Not so fast, implies Harvard historian and Obama devotee (and GOP basher) James T. Kloppenberg in Reading Obama (2011: 87): "[H]is ideas can be shown both to have influenced Obama and to illuminate Obama's political convictions."
It would be reasonable to think that "his" means Marx; reasonable but wrong. It refer to someone most Americans have never heard of: Harvard philosopher John Rawls, author of A Theory of Justice (1971), a monumental work on political philosophy that has the potential to earn its author superstar status in the field alongside Hobbes, Kant, and Mill.
The book builds on an article that Rawls published in 1958 titled "Justice as Fairness." Aha! Maybe the idea of running on "fairness" came from Obama after all, with an assist (plagiarized?) from Rawls. Obama entered Harvard Law School in 1988.
The Rawls-Obama connection is not far-fetched. Kloppenberg insists (p. 87) that without grasping this connection, "We cannot understand the amalgam of deeply held principles and frankly admitted uncertainties that characterizes Obama's approach to public life."
The evidence trail begins on page 91, where Kloppenberg writes:
Before, during, and after the years when Obama was studying law, references to Rawls' writings peppered the pages of the HLR [Harvard Law Review, of which Obama was elected editor at the end of his first year of law school in 1989.]
Kloppenberg provides specifics on page 92:
To a remarkable degree, Rawls' two principles align with the principles that Obama learned in Chicago as a community organizer, the principles animating [Saul] Alinsky's approach to social action.
The two principles in question relate to justice and are ones that Rawls argues would be chosen by people (a) in a hypothetical situation (called "the original position," see Ch. III) where everyone wants pretty much the same things out of life, but (b) can't rig the outcome in their own favor, lacking knowledge (owing to "the veil of ignorance," same chapter) of their future abilities, desires, and position in society.
Assuming (a) and (b), says Rawls, the principle of justice given top priority would be the assignment of equal basic rights and duties. The rights Rawls considers basic are the right to vote and run for office, freedom of speech and assembly, liberty of conscience, freedom of personal property, and freedom from arbitrary arrest.
There would also be agreement, Rawls adds, on a second principle of justice (called "the difference principle," see Chapter II) that would allow inequalities of wealth in society only if they maximized the minimum benefit to its least advantaged members.
Kloppenberg explains on page 93 that "alignment" between Rawls and Obama (and Alinsky) designates action and not merely theory:
It might seem jarring to find Rawls' principles of justice hashed out in the church basements of Chicago's far south side. But according to Kruglik, that is what he, Kellman, Galuzzo, and Obama knew they were doing.
On page 25, Kloppenberg identifies Obama's associates as follows:
Obama was recruited by Gerald Kellman, called Marty in Dreams [of My Father] to work in the Developing Communities Project, an offshoot of the Calumet Community Religious Conference. From Kellman, from [community organizer] Mike Kruglik, and from Gregory Galuzzo of the Gamaliel Foundation, Obama learned the techniques of community organizing by being thrown into the deep end of the pool.
On page 93, Kloppenberg claims consistency between Rawls and Alinsky's book Rules for Radicals (1971), adding bluntly: "Community organizers, at least from Kruglik's perspective, work to enact Rawls' theory of justice."
Now, Democrats routinely portray Republicans as greedy, heartless, unprincipled Gordon Gekko clones. Conservatives can paint over this caricature by refusing to concede big philosophical ideas just because the left has appropriated them. Thus, Romney and Gingrich can call Obama's bluff that he alone is entitled to claim (Rawlsian) fairness on behalf of his policies by pointing to compatibility between Rawls' principles of justice and conservative tenets.
For example, Romney and Gingrich can agree with Rawls' list of basic rights and the need to assign them on an equal basis. While the list has significant gaps because it excludes important aspects of capitalism such as the right to own a factory (i.e., "means of production") and the freedom to execute contracts, their omission only means such rights are not as strong as the rights Rawls considers basic, not that they are not rights at all. Conservatives can live with the idea that rights are not equally strong.
Second, it can plausibly be argued that inequalities of wealth under the capitalism of today, which promotes philanthropy and volunteerism, do a better job than any alternative of ensuring an effective "safety net" for the least advantaged members of society. (Romney needs to be careful when addressing this subject.)
As it happens, conservatives have a heavy hitter fully on their side. That would be Harvard philosopher, minimal state exponent and Rawls critic Robert Nozick, who argued in Anarchy, State and Utopia (1974) that, to avoid violating the rights of citizens, the state must stick to functions such as providing protection against force, theft, fraud, enforcement of contracts, and the like. Nozick maintains that redistributive taxation -- an Obama-Reid-Pelosi favorite -- is an infringement on liberty, rejecting the redistribution of any goods without consent, a time-honored conservative credo as well.
I wrote earlier that this fall's campaign would be a showdown between Marx and Mill. The administration seems to have pivoted from Marx to Rawls.
Memo to Mitt and Newt: Read Rawls, also Kloppenberg for clues to Obama's potential misuse of A Theory of Justice in the months ahead. For support, read Nozick.