The Coming Clash of Worldviews

Current conventional wisdom about the November elections says the biggest issue will be "jobs" and who can best revive the economy.  However, emerging out of the rhetorical fog is the shape of something far more fundamental: a stark oncoming clash of worldviews demanding resolution.

It's becoming increasingly clear that Barack Obama, unable to run for re-election on a record of positive economic accomplishments during his first term, has decided to reframe the election debate as a final choice between two worldviews.  If he hadn't done so, the same debate would have been forced upon him by those terrified by what they see ahead.

In his recent State of the Union speech, Mr. Obama sought to define the conflict as being between two irresolvable opposites of his choosing:

We can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well, while a growing number of Americans barely get by.  Or we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules.

He goes on to present a false choice between doing nothing and creating an economy in which achievers must be pulled down rather than the poor raised up -- all in the interests of "fairness."  At no point does Obama consider reducing the cost, size, and reach of government. 

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) makes clear that Obama's worldview has never had an underlying economic argument.  Instead, in a recent interview published in The Wall Street Journal, Cantor claims that it is "all about social justice."

The "philosophical starting point" of today's Democrats, as Mr. Cantor sees it, is that they "believe in a welfare state before they believe in capitalism. They promote economic programs of redistribution to close the gap of the disparity between the classes. That's what they're about:  redistributive politics."

In a speech on the Senate floor last summer, Marco Rubio (R-FL) made clear that the competing worldviews to be settled in the upcoming election will be between those who believe that the government's job is to "deliver economic justice" and those who believe that the government's job is to "promote economic opportunity."

Are these views reconcilable?  Senator Rubio thinks not.

Ultimately, we may find that between these two points there may not be a middle ground, and that, in fact, as a nation and as a people, we must decide what we want the role of government to be in America, moving forward.

Interestingly, the conflict between freedom for individual wealth-creation at all economic levels and government-enforced wealth-redistribution has roiled since the earliest days of our nation's founding.  As students of world history know, the dominant governing model worldwide for thousands of years involved a strong central authority usually led by a ruling individual, be he king or tribal chief or dictator by some other name.  Not until the 17th century would groups of individuals escaping the tyranny of Europe's top-down rule settle on the shores of a new continent to try a different way. 

On a ship to the new land, Pilgrims so adverse to the old ruling model voted to adopt a new one -- a "Commonwealth" -- where each family would provide common goods for the community to be shared equally.  As documented by their first American governor, William Bradford, the Plymouth colony suffered mightily as a result.  Some refused to contribute equally.  Basic human nature kicked in as  top producers refused to assist slackers, and the colony almost perished from disease and hunger.  In desperation, they established a private property model, with individuals free to profit from the results of their efforts.  Prosperity returned within a year.  We now celebrate Thanksgiving as a result.

The wonders which result from releasing individual human effort to develop private property and wealth unshackled from collective limits enforced by others became a lesson not lost on following settlers.  Yet, a hundred years later, the prospering colonies came under oppressive domination by the king and parliament of England.  In response, a movement for full independence grew as reaffirmation of the basic need for individual freedom in economic and religious endeavor. 

The Declaration of Independence formally challenged the worldwide governing model.  Its opening sentence presents a humble pronouncement that common people poorly governed are free to pledge obedience to governance under a power higher than human rule to secure "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

It took another decade and a hard-fought war to secure political independence and write a constitution enshrining the concept of limited central government within a representative republic composed of separate sovereign states intended to spread over an entire continent.  Even then, adoption of the Constitution was not secured without the inclusion of ten amendments further driving home the concept of restricting central-government encroachment on individual liberty.

For over another hundred years, through tumultuous times of financial booms and busts, westward exploration and emigration, foreign wars, and a devastating civil war, the nation survived and prospered.  But then came Woodrow Wilson, the first American president elected to office after declaring the Constitution "obsolete" in the modern world of industrial growth, dense urbanization, and massive immigration.  The founding of the nation, according to Wilson, was a "simple age," and humans had evolved beyond that time.  He called for "progressive" reforms, resurrecting the notion of a stronger central government, greater regulation of private enterprise, and a need for international collectivism.

For a time, some of the "progressive" reforms made sense to check monopolies and other forms of unethical behavior within the private enterprise system.  However, in the last sixty years, an ever-growing effort has evolved, bringing the nation closer again to governance by a crushing central government mandating a collectivist egalitarian model of wealth redistribution not unlike that which failed for the early Pilgrims.  The Great Recession of 2008 has spawned a full assault by Barack Obama and his Democrat Party on the private-enterprise system and individual liberty.  Their policies now threaten without apology to end the great experiment embodied in the country's founding.

Clearly revealing the battle that lies ahead, the first term of the Obama administration has been used to infuse the notion that Americans -- particularly the majority in the lower-economic percentiles --can and should expect their government to provide them with essentially effortless sustenance.  CNN recently reported on a detailed study of the 2010 census revealing that about half of all U.S. households -- nearly 148 million Americans -- received a government check.

Some 26% of Americans lived in households where someone received Medicaid, while the figure was 15% for food stamps. Those programs were by far the largest of the safety net.

Meanwhile, 16% of people lived in households collecting Social Security and 15% receiving Medicare benefits. These entitlements have been expanding as the Baby Boom generation retires.

The Congressional Budget Office revealed the magnitude of the problem when it released a deficit projection for fiscal year 2012 totaling $1.1 trillion.  The budget forecasts $3.6 trillion in outlays with but $2.5 trillion in revenue from all possible income sources. 

In another clear sign of troubling impact on American society, the Heritage Foundation reports that 70 percent of government spending now goes to individual assistance programs.  One in five Americans (more than 67.3 million) -- the highest number in the nation's history -- relies almost entirely on government and not himself for everything from housing, health care, and food stamps to retirement assistance -- all paid for by others.

To make matters worse, estimated government spending by states and local jurisdictions nearly matches the federal outlay.  Larry Arnn, president of Hillsdale College, in a recent interview, reveals what this means:

The GDP is near $15 trillion while government spending at all levels is $6.7 trillion.  So; we're $800 billion away from half, and health care is coming.  That means that government will become greater than the rest of society.  How can the rest of society watch it?  There's endless possibilities of corruption in such a situation with resulting loss of public morality.

Clearly, spending on such a gigantic scale has hit home for many terrified Americans.  They see the future for themselves, their children, and their grandchildren doomed to an era of continued low prosperity and massive corruption.  Taking money by coercion from one to give to another has been historically called "theft" -- not "fairness."  Receiving largess without effort crushes the drive and work ethic of each able-bodied recipient.  The current turmoil in Europe, even now being copied on a smaller scale by the "entitled poor" of the Occupy Wall Street crowd, clearly shows the ugliness ahead. 

Will the Obama administration, by dispensing largesse on a massive scale in exchange for votes, subvert the limited central government model inherent in our Constitution?  Will we revert to governance under the age-old model of strong central authority maintaining top-down power and control?  Can the Republican candidates for president and Congress articulate the blessings of widespread wealth and prosperity resulting from unleashing individual liberty with individual responsibility versus powerless masses scrambling to just get a piece of the dole?  Or have Democrats convinced a sufficient number of voters to let "economic justice" replace "economic opportunity"?

Our own historic Plymouth colony and the European collapse today reveal lessons for all to see. The coming election provides voters the first real opportunity afforded by our Constitution for Americans to render their decision on which worldview they wish to adopt, since Mr. Obama has made the choice so clear.  Resolution of this coming clash of worldviews will have profound significance for us all.

Mr. McLaughlin retired as vice president of a company producing special-purpose military communications equipment.  He lives in California and may be reached at

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