World of Social Justice
Obama's much-discussed speech in Roanoke, Virginia, among his remarks
on the source of success was his assertion that
If you were
successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There
was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to
create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed
you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you've
got a business you didn't build that. Somebody else made
that happen. The Internet didn't get invented on its own. Government
research created the Internet so that all the companies could
make money off the Internet.
What is one
to make of the president's celebration of the government's role
in the personal pursuits of citizens and his diminishment of the
causal connection between the productivity of individuals and the
success of their pursuits? This essay locates the source of Obama's
assertion in the influence on his thought of philosopher John Rawls's
theory of distributive justice and philosophical pragmatism's theories
of mind, self, and society.
But I begin with what he asserts is the defining issue of our time:
settle for an economy where a few people do really well and then
a growing number are struggling to get by? Or do we build an economy
... where everybody gets a fair shot, and everybody does their
fair share, and everybody is playing by the same set of rules?
are to be expected from a president who believes that
are president ... your job is to figure out how everybody in the
country has a fair shot.... Your job as President is to think
about how do we set up an equitable tax system so that everybody
is paying their fair share, that allows us then to invest in science
and technology and infrastructure, all of which are going to help
statements in his career indicate, Obama's vision of paternalistic
governance is the view he brought with him to the presidency. In
1998, as a first-term Illinois state senator, he argued that in
order to ensure that "nobody is left behind," government
systems must be more efficiently structured to "pool resources
and hence facilitate some redistribution." While on that occasion
he underscored his proposal with the declaration that "I actually
believe in redistribution, at least at a certain level,"
as president he uses such euphemisms as "investment,"
"giving back," "giving everyone a fair shot"
or "fair share" and "economic patriotism"
all of which imply redistribution by another name.
At first glance
the ideal of "fair shares for all" suggests the requirement
of a political and economic framework based on Karl Marx's distribution
policy of "From each according to his ability, to each according
to his need."
But Obama's conception of fairness is not of classic Marxist origin.
As noted, it is more a reflection of philosopher John Rawls's theory
of justice and pragmatism's varied perspectives of the self-society
His vision is a version of the altruist-collectivist social contract
that Jean Jacques Rousseau proposed as the solution to the problem
of constructing a society of freedom divorced from property ownership,
which he saw as the source of a war of all against all. His thought
also includes the Progressive belief, as argued by William Allen
White, that the solution to democracy's problem of unleashed self-interest
lies in overcoming the spirit of commercialism with the spirit of
Community of Equals
is a response to the failure of the American economy to realize
John Rawls's difference principle. In Rawls's theory, society is
a well-ordered "cooperative venture" organized like a
team for the mutual benefit of its members and regulated by "a
public conception of justice" as "a set of principles
for assigning rights and duties and determining the appropriate
distribution of the benefits and burdens of social cooperation."
Although members are all equal as human beings, some on the team
have been favored by nature with talent, intellect, ability, incentive,
and performance that gives them an advantage over others. They naturally
want to protect their advantage. Yet because their advantage is
the result of nature's "luck of the draw," they agree
to a standard of justice as fairness (the difference principle)
which allows them to gain from their good fortune but only
to the extent that their advantage improves the lot of those who
were least advantaged by nature's lottery. Writes Rawls, "The
higher expectations of those better off are just if and only if
they work as part of a scheme which improves the expectations of
the least advantaged members of society."
in the Rawlsian world proceeds from the legislative authority derived
from the united will of the people (evidenced by their high level
of conformity to the redistribution norm), the state can legitimately
force redistribution, and the perception is that no injustice is
done to anyone. This interpretation of the legitimacy of the state's
forced redistribution is evident in the attitude of citizens like
billionaire Warren Buffett who has the tax policy called the Buffett
Rule named for him. As the White House describes the rule, "No
household making more than $1 million each year should pay a smaller
share of their income in taxes than a middle class family pays."
It is presented as "a simple principle of tax fairness that
asks everyone to pay their fair share."
The president was probably thinking of Buffett and others when he
said, "There are a lot of wealthy, successful Americans who
agree with me because they want to give something back."
Although he acknowledges individual initiative, which the facts
of his own biography impose on him, he defends the social-justice
framework by justifying its redistribution policy as a "give-back"
imperative of the "we're-all-in-this-together" society.
from his education that a political-economic framework that can
execute the redistribution standard requires a cultural context
in which social actors are guided by a shared view of themselves
as embodying a "community of attitudes" or "collective
conscience," a concept that sociologist Emile Durkheim drew
from Rousseau's view of absolute commitment to the general will.
By collective conscience Durkheim meant the totality of beliefs,
sentiments, values, customs, and norms common to average citizens
that regulates the thoughts and actions of individuals.
Rousseau argued that in order for people to be free from the dissensus
caused by self-interest, inequality, and exploitation, there must
be "an absolute surrender of the individual, with all his rights
and all of his powers, to the community as a whole."
The harmony and stability of the collectivist society envisioned
by Rousseau and Durkheim depends on people viewing the constraints
of society and the sovereign will of the state as the natural order
of things. They must also transfer to civil society the commitment
they had traditionally held for the sacred, and schools must teach
children the importance of the political community's claim to their
loyalty and of their commitment to the morality of the collective.
view, commitment to the collective conscience is maintained through
attachment and social regulation. Attachment to social
groups and their goals, involving interpersonal ties and the perception
that one is part of a larger collectivity, keeps people from becoming
too "egoistic." Social regulation through political and
legal controls, economic sanctions, and such instruments of control
as persuasion, ridicule, stigmatization, gossip, opprobrium, and
ostracism limits individual aspirations and needs, and keeps them
in check. Through attachment and regulation the will of each individual
is merged into the general will of his group or the larger community,
creating social cohesion and unanimity, in which "the deliberations
of any one person are typical of all." For Rousseau, the collapse
of the boundary between private and public affairs would foster
the commitment to public service as "the chief business of
the emotional and intellectual investment individuals make in sustaining
the collective conscience and seeking the reward of social approval
through their conformity, the more concerned they are about forces
such as differentiation of groups and inequality that can undermine
their sense of belonging and their reliance on an integrated and
stable social order they take for granted and experience as something
other than a human product. Nobel Prizewinning economist Joseph
Stiglitz voices this concern in his argument that the greatest cost
imposed on American society by the wealthiest 1 percent is "the
erosion of our sense of identity, in which fair play, equality of
opportunity, and a sense of community are so important." It
is their fault, he says, that "the chances of a poor citizen,
or even a middle-class citizen, making it to the top in America
are smaller than in many countries of Europe."
members who share Stiglitz's concerns and who want to avoid the
loss of the community's respect for them will conform to the redistribution
expectation; they will accept the definition of their rewards as
a public resource and comply with the state's demand that they place
them in service to the less advantaged through taxation and regulation.
They will view their compliance with forced distribution as a duty
of citizenship, an act of "economic patriotism," as Obama
calls it, in the belief that doing so will contribute to the betterment
of society. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, what Obama calls
economic patriotism was referred to as "social responsibility,"
which the business community embraced as "corporate social
A Cause Greater
In such an
altruist-collectivist cultural environment that supports the statist
framework of distributive justice, self-interest is erroneously
understood to be necessarily in conflict with community.
This false dichotomy has been a major theme in American political
culture since the nation's founding, but has grown more intense
during the last half century. The question it raises regarding the
self-society dimension of American citizenship was most recently
posed by former president Bill Clinton before the 2012 National
Democratic Convention. The kind of country Americans want to live
in, argued Clinton, depends on their choice between a "you're-on-your-own,
winner-take-all society" and "a country of shared prosperity
and shared responsibility a we're-all-in-this-together society."
In 2008, then-Senator
Obama answered the question when he told the graduating class at
Wesleyan University that their obligation to themselves was to recognize
that "our individual salvation depends on our collective salvation."
He then called them to public service "because it'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 greater chapter in America's story."
The depth of Obama's belief in the altruistic ethic of serving a
cause greater than oneself is evident in a letter to his daughters,
published after his inauguration. His hope, he said, was that they
would work to right the wrongs they see and give others the chances
they've had. "Not just because you have an obligation to give
something back to this country that has given our family so much
... [but] Because it is only when you hitch your wagon to something
larger than yourself that you will realize your true potential."
In so saying,
the president joined previous presidents who advocate the Christian-based
ethos of the Progressive Era that one has a personal responsibility
for the problems of others, and the New Deal's policy that a person's
problems justify his claim to the right to use the power of the
state to force others to take responsibility for his problems. He
told the students at Wesleyan that his work as a community organizer
was inspired by John Kennedy's famous invocation to "ask not
what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country."
His hope for his daughters could have been just as easily voiced
by President George H.W. Bush, who told the nation in his 1989 inaugural
address, "We can find meaning and reward by serving some higher
purpose than ourselves, a shining purpose, the illumination of a
Thousand Points of Light....We all have something to give."
Obama's words also echo those of his rival for the presidency, John
McCain, who wrote that "Love of country is another way of saying
love of your fellow countrymen.... Patriotism is another way of
saying service to a cause greater than self-interest."
of sacrifice with patriotism was drawn, in part, from the code of
"national-greatness conservatism" advocated by neoconservatives
William Kristol and David Brooks. According to Brooks, this new
public ethos balances the distinctions between individual rights
and community prerogatives and "marries community goodness
with national greatness." As a "unifying American creed"
it will "reinvigorate the nationalism of Alexander Hamilton,
Henry Clay and Teddy Roosevelt," promote virtues such as "duty,
loyalty, honesty, discretion, and self-sacrifice," and inspire
Americans to subordinate their narrow self-interest to the larger
mission of the country's "national destiny."
Since we can
ennoble ourselves by freely choosing to assist others, one might
think that, in calling students and his daughters to public service,
Obama was encouraging the virtue of generosity. But he promotes
generosity as an obligation to which others are entitled, not as
the voluntary practice it is. As Tibor Machan points out, like other
true virtues, generosity is binding on one not as an obligation
to others, but "as a matter of one's own choice to live a full
human life." We have moral responsibilities to others, argues
Machan, " not because those who might benefit are entitled,
but because of our choice to live human lives within the company
In Obama's perspective, as a member of the collective, an individual's
moral worth is not sovereign but dependent on serving the welfare
of the collective. Thus, he promotes the greater-than-self credo
as a rationale that justifies redistribution by equating it with
generosity and compassion.
demand that "generosity," "charity, " "compassion,"
or "kindness" be legally secured by coercive governments
welfare statists, socialists, and to some extent communitarians
actually destroy the foundation of those moral virtues,
by changing them from virtues into enforceable duties. They render
the conduct as something the agent cannot choose freely, without
of moral virtue into laws of coerced obligation by American presidents
is evident in their use of tax dollars to finance various new federal
bureaucracies to encourage the growth of volunteerism. Below are
just a few of the vast network of bureaucracies promoting volunteerism
erected by three of the former presidents and Obama that are essentially
instruments of redistribution that taxpayers fund in the name of
causes greater than themselves.
Read the entire
monograph in PDF: "Sociological
View of Obama's World of Social Justice."
by the president at a campaign event in Roanoke, Virginia
, July 13, 2012.
John Rawls, A Theory Of Justice, Oxford: Oxford University
"Justice as fairness: Political not metaphysical,"
Philosophy and Public Affairs, 14, 1985, 223251.
For an analysis
of the influence of pragmatism, John Rawls' theory of justice,
Oliver Wendell Holmes' legal realism and the social gospel on
Obama's thought see: James T. Kloppenberg, Reading
Obama: Dreams, Hope, and the American Political Tradition,
Princeton University Press, 2010. For an analysis of Obama's inculcation
of philosophical pragmatism during his time in Chicago as a community
organizer, senior lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School,
and as an emerging figure in Illinois politics, see: Bart Schultz,
"Obama's Political Philosophy: Pragmatism, Politics, and
the University of Chicago," Philosophy of the Social Sciences
39 (2), 2009, 127173
by the president at Lorain County Community College, Elyria,
OH, April 18, 2012.
Obama on Romney and Bain," The Jed Report, Daily Kos,
May 21, 2012.
Brett LoGiurato, "New
Leaked Obama Video from 1998: 'I Actually Believe In Redistribution'
At A Certain Level," Business Insider, Septermber 18,
Karl Marx, Critique
of the Gotha Program, Marx/Engels Selected Works, Volume
Three, Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1970, 1330.
John Rawls, A
Theory Of Justice, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972.
William Allen White, The
Old Order Changeth: A View of American Democracy, New
York: Macmillan Company, 1910, 2930. Quoted in Richard Hofstadter,
Age of Reform, New York: Vintage, 212.
John Rawls, A Theory Of Justice, 45.
John Rawls, A Theory Of Justice, 75.
Buffet Rule," Whitehouse.gov.
by the president at a campaign event in Roanoke, Virginia,
July 13, 2012.
Emile Durkheim, The
Division of Labor in Society, New York: Free Press, 1947,
Rousseau, Social Contract, 14.
Jean Jacques Rousseau, The
Social Contract or Principles of Political Right, Chapter
3, Book XV, 1762, trans. 1782 by G. D. H. Cole.
Joseph E. Stiglitz, "Inequality:
Of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1%," Vanity Fair,
Price of Inequality: How Today's Divided Society Endangers Our
For analyses of this paradoxical character of American culture,
centered around its philosophical conflict between individualism
and collectivism, see: John W. Caughey, "Our Chosen Destiny,"
Journal of American History, LII (1965), 251. Michael Kammen,
of Paradox: An Inquiry Concerning the Origins of American Civilization.
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1972, 114. Leonard Peikoff, The
Ominous Parallels: The End of Freedom in America. New
York: Stein and Day, 1982, 104105, 118. E. J. Dionne Jr.,
Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent,
Clinton's Democratic Convention Speech, September 5, 2012.
Katie Zezima, "Standing
In for Kennedy, Obama Embraces Legacy," New York Times,
May 26, 2008.
Barack Obama, "A
Letter to My Daughters: What I Want for You and Every Child
in America," Parade.com.
The term "thousand points of light" was coined by speech
writer Peggy Noonan, but originates in C. S. Lewis' The
Magician's Nephew (1955) "One moment there had been
nothing but darkness; next moment a thousand, thousand points
of light leaped out ... "
John McCain, "A
Cause Greater Than Self," McCain and Obama on Patriotism.
Time, June 25, 2008.
William Kristol and David Brooks, "What
Ails Conservatism," Wall Street Journal, Sept.
15, 1997, A22.
"A Return to National Greatness: A Manifesto for a Lost Creed,"
The Weekly Standard, March 3, 1997.
Tibor R. Machan, Generosity:
Virtue in Civil Society, Washington, DC: Cato Institute,
Wortham [send her mail],
associate professor of sociology at Illinois State University,
is author of The
Other Side of Racism: A Philosophical Study of Black Race Consciousness
(1981). Many of her articles on civil rights policy and American
culture can be found online in the archives of Reason, the The
Freeman, The World & I and Questa.com. The transcript of her
conversation with Bill Moyers on his 1988 PBS series, A World
of Ideas, is published in his book under the same title.
© 2012 by the Ludwig von Mises Institute.
Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided
full credit is given.