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The ABC of Government Intervention

March 3, 2009

One of the more remarkable lines of M Obama’s address to Congress the other day was that high school dropouts are “quitting on [their] country”. Actually, this statement is typical of the President’s tendency to patronise Americans and because we have gotten so used to this finger-wagging tone it is probably not surprising that few people cared to comment on this. (It may also be that any criticism of this part of the speech is avoided because it would certainly trigger false accusations of condoning mauvaise-foi high school dropouts, “keep the dumb dumb” elitism and – never missing – racism.) But the French Cowboy would like to make a comment on the “quitting high school = unpatriotic” idea (cue the false accusations).

For one thing, it is unlikely that people who – for whatever reasons – want to quit high school will be convinced to change their mind by the patriotism argument. If you don’t see compelling personal reasons to finish high school then you probably don’t see compelling societal reasons for you to finish school. And even if you did (or if you believed your President when he says that it is so) you probably wouldn’t find the selflessness in you to throw away your personal preference in favour of ‘the greater good’. (There could be individuals in whose value system patriotism is ranked so high that they can’t look at their face in the mirror once somebody tells them that their lacking desire for education is unpatriotic, but those must be rare in number.) So this tsktsk-en by M Obama – in his SOTU, no less – is unlikely to have an effect on those at whom it appears to be directed (namely the high school dropouts). For the cynics among us this leads to wondering whether publicly chiding high school quitters is less inspired by the President’s desire to see young Americans succeed than by his desire to see himself succeed.

The greater problem here is another one, though. It is the underlying assumption made by the President that

a) personal interest is in contradiction to the interests of society and that

b) societal interest beats personal interest.

“But what are you complaining about?”, you ask, “Aren’t those the principles that our brave soldiers are living on? What if they said that their personal preference for a quiet life is more important than going to those unneccessary wars à la Bush?” To this the French Cowboy replies that, first of all, it should be “wars au Bush”, but more to the point: It is exactly because those soldiers do see that their personal interest to serve in the military is in line with society’s interest to have a military that the parallel doesn’t stand. There is no conscription in the US Military, those who join it do so on their own free will. If you want to draw a parallel, it must be that Obama did the equivalent of chiding those who chose not to join the military for lack of patriotism. And just as it is not true that anyone who decided against putting on the uniform is “quitting on his country” it is not true that anyone who decided against finishing high school is “quitting on his country.”

In the case of education, assumption a) is debatable. Is it really against society’s interest that some don’t have a strong enough preference for learning to finish high school? The French Cowboy doubts this, but if you say, absolutely so, then let’s accept that for argument’s sake. Yet regarding b), is it realistic to expect from people to disregard their personal preferences in order to contribute minimally to the achievement of Obama’s goal to make Americans look more educated on paper? And the next step (‘c)’ if you will): if those expectations are disappointed will laws be drafted that make high school graduation mandatory? Does b) follow out of a) and result in a mandate for government to get into action? My argument is that even if a) is true, b) need not be.

There is another area where the consequences of a weltanschauung based on a) and b) are observable: Monsieur Obama’s way of handling the economy. From his decision to tax the rich, decry business executives and bail out homeowners we can derive that the President thinks that a market driven by self-interest is an unjust system that rewards greed and punishes innocence. Sadly, this wrong conception of how a free market works leads to unhealthy policies that threaten to cause more damage than good. This is a case where a) isn’t true and so there is no need to intervene based on b).

To justify his course of action M Obama argues that a) and b) hold true in a number of areas in which many Americans do not believe in a) or not in b) or not in either. The French Cowboy fears that, with or without convincing many of his listeners (mostly with), the President is bound to introduce a lot regulations into the lives of individuals in the name of ‘the greater good’.

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