As Americans prepared to mark the birth of their country with the usual outpouring of celebratory events, pundits on the political right were scratching their heads over President Obama’s most recent comment about America’s free-enterprise system.
This time, corporate jet owners got the hit, no fewer than six times during Obama’s late June press conference, apparently for taking advantage of Bush administration tax breaks at the cost of “your child’s safety.” Such financial obscenities were matched by continued tax breaks for “millionaires and billionaires,” whose wealth the political left covets and whose sheer selfishness, in their view, has driven a stake through the heart of the president’s vaunted recovery summer. All the while unemployment rates remain stubbornly high, large and small businesses refuse to take their plunge into the world created by Obamacus Economicus, Americans by large majorities believe the country is going “in the wrong direction,” and administration officials remain puzzled by it all. The question is how to explain all this.
Two observers, one a 19th-century Frenchmen and the other a 20th-century Englishmen, offered words of wisdom about the consequences of centralizing political control and, we shall argue, the moral relativism that accompanies such a development.
Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville’s famous warning in Democracy in America about the peculiar type of despotism to which democracies are especially vulnerable included comments about “an immense tutelary power” hovering over a mass of citizens, for whose happiness it “willingly labors, but it chooses to be a sole agent and the only arbiter,” leaving nothing for individual determination. “What remains,” de Tocqueville asked, “but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living?” The result is a power that “prevents existence,” that “compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people,” to the point where they can no longer be considered human beings at all.
Or if they can, they have no chests. This designation was made famous by that bête noire of British moral relativists, C. S. Lewis, noted for his writings on Christian apologetics as well as his Narnia series and the space trilogy. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man consists of three lectures he gave during World War II and was not about politics per se, but rather about the perils of assuming that science can dismiss statements of moral sentiments as purely subjective reactions. He noted that dismissing value statements’ objective meaning has the effect of emasculating humanity; that is, ripping out the “spirited element” of personhood—one’s chest—which hosts “indispensable liaison officers between cerebral man and visceral man. It may even be said that it is by this middle element that man is man.”
This moral position is behind the expression, for instance, of having the “guts” to do something, the temerity, the “animal spirits.” It is not intellect alone that drives a person, nor one’s visceral desires, but that middle portion, the indispensable “heart” of it all; that is, one’s chest. Tear out an individual’s chest and you have a wraith: a head with appetites but no heart, no drive, no will to act.
Now consider the political application of these views in light of the current administration’s centralizing proclivities over the past two-and-a-half years. In the context of nationalizing decision-making for automakers, student borrowers, energy producers, and a host of large financial concerns, the Obama administration has regularly demonized the private sector, associating it with the greed and selfishness of what C. S. Lewis referred to as undisciplined appetites. Even casual consumers of news hear regularly about some two trillion (or more) dollars in the hands of private enterprise “sitting on the sidelines,” waiting for profitable investment but whose owners are afraid that their wealth will be confiscated to some degree. In the meantime, a massive healthcare law has begun its regulatory march across America; the EPA scorns Congress’ constitutional responsibilities while considering the imposition of cap-and-trade by administrative fiat; the NLRB sues one of America’s largest and most successful businesses for violating centrally determined political objectives. And this is just the short list.
What is the possible, indeed, the likely consequence of all this, if the process continues unchecked?
De Tocqueville saw the political result clearly, and C. S. Lewis is even more instructive in moral terms. Centralization of political power produces a nation of sheep who eventually become incapable even of forming concepts about independence, freedom, individual initiative. And ripping the constitutional heart out of American government and the “spirited element” from its most vibrant, imaginative citizens leaves a mass of dispirited onlookers, too timid or terrified to form judgments and make decisions that drive economic and spiritual growth.
About all this, administration officials remain uncomprehending, puzzled by the lack of national recovery. They shouldn’t be. In C. S. Lewis’ words, “we remove the organ and demand the function … We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.”
This is the inevitable result of the country’s creeping centralization, of creating ever larger numbers of Americans without chests.