Column #2 on Obama’s Speech

“Our” ambitions?

Tibor R. Machan

In his inaugural address our new president averred that “Now, there are
some who question the scale of our ambitions—who suggest that our system
cannot tolerate too many big plans. Their memories are short. For they
have forgotten what this country has already done; what free men and women
can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose, and necessity to
courage.”

I take some exception to Mr. Obama’s implicit assertion that what matters
in a good society is that there be some kind of large scale ambition
afoot, some sort of big plan. Frankly, it smacks to me of those famous
Five Year Plans that the Soviet Union was constantly rolling out and
conscripting everyone to serve. Usually these “big plans” are not of our
making at all but only those of some of us, a few who take it upon
themselves to speak for everyone, who imagine that they can forge such
collective endeavors without really consulting us at all.

The uniqueness of the American system of government includes not making
plans for us all but making it possible for us to pursue our own plans.
This recognizes the diversity of the citizenry, with all of its varied big
and small plans that can be pursued in mutually harmonious ways without an
attitude of “one size fits all.”

When the Declaration of Independence lists as one of the basic human
individual rights all of us have the “pursuit of happiness,” it
acknowledges, at least implicitly, that in a big country very different
ways to attain happiness are possible. What the public good amounts to in
such a free society is that everyone’s rights are secured so they may all
go about their big or small plans without being driven by some leader,
king, tsar or “Fuhrer.”

The American political tradition rejects the idea that for our lives to be
meaningful we must get on board a train that goes to just one common
place. It recognizes, instead, that human beings have some common
purposes, yes, but mostly pursue their happiness in many different ways
with ends that are themselves quite varied.

So if President Obama understood well this tradition—including his role in
it—he would stop talking about big plans as if they were the only
worthwhile ones and focus, instead, on the plain and at once glorious fact
that in a free country there will be millions and millions of small plans
and no big one at all apart from making the pursuit of those small plans
possible.

Not that this idea is simple to grasp and appreciate. For too many people
what is worthwhile has to be big, large, massive, colossal, like the
pyramids, Hoover Dam, the Eiffel Tower. The illusions created by these
large projects tend to be that they aren’t just big but very important,
more important than the “puny plans” of individuals.

The American political tradition rejects this and does not prejudge what
kind of plan is meaningful and worthwhile for you and me and millions and
millions of others. It serves, rather, to provide a setting in which all
of us have the right to pursue our plans, provided they are peaceful and
meet certain standards appropriate for those whose tasks they
are–artists, scientists, educators, managers, foremen, home makers, and
the lot.

Please let’s stop being condescending toward all these folks because they
aren’t part of some big plan. Their varied individual plans are quite
worthwhile, thank you, Mr. President.

——————————–
Machan holds the R. C. Hoiles Chair in business ethics and free enterprise
at Chapman University, Orange, CA. His collection of columns (unproofed)
may be found at http://tiborrmachan.blogspot.com/

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