Barack Obama must think he’s a good capitalist. At the end of the second debate, in response to the greatest misconception about his record and his politics, the president declared himself a defender of free enterprise: “I believe that the free enterprise system is the greatest engine of prosperity the world has ever known.”
Thanks for clearing that up, Mr. president. He promptly followed up this fine intro with a post-script: “everybody should have a fair shot and everybody should do their fair share and everybody should play by the rules.”
This president meant the last part as a reminder of his differences with Mitt Romney. Yet, even the most miserly conservative would agree with his statement. Yes, everyone should have a fair shot. Of course, everyone should do his or her fair share. And absolutely, playing by the same rules is essential in a republic where “We the People” rule. After all, equality before the law is a hallmark of justice. Don't we all agree, then?
Not so fast. President Obama may be using the right words, but he understands them in a way that undercuts the very system he’s supposedly praising. Thankfully for the president, his words were the last ones in the debate. No one could challenge his friendly foray into private sector. Yet his words — more accurately, his misunderstanding (at best) or his deliberate falsehood (at worst) — demand a response.
The response should begin and end with the president’s definition of “equal opportunity.” On its face, it’s unassuming enough that everyone can agree with it, right or left. But Obama means one thing and one thing alone when he says it: conformity of opportunity.
This is what the president means by “have a fair shot.” Unless every American has similar opportunities — read: the same opportunities — then the nation’s economic system is unjust. This trope quickly becomes the tool by which the 1% is vilified. Their wealth, the story goes, gives them chances that the rest of us just don’t have. Can you imagine anything more unjust?
Yes. The president seems unwilling to bring his argument home. If conformity of opportunity is the hallmark of a just society, then it needs to be guaranteed at every step of our lives. Where else should this start but in the schoolroom? One unfair advantage is private schools. They give their students a better shot at going to college, which gives them better jobs after graduation, which lets them lead a better life as they enter adulthood. This is manifestly unjust to public school kids. Better take Malia and Sasha out of Sidwell Friends, Mr. President.
Contrast this with the conservative definition of equal opportunity. Theirs is equality where each individual has the opportunity to achieve his or her potential and pursue the American Dream. It is an opportunity where hard work and creativity is rewarded. After all, how can opportunity really exist where those who succeed are punished for their ingenuity?
For those who lack opportunity, civil society is there to pick up the slack — not the federal government. Neighbors, churches, charitable organizations, and even local and state governments play their part. (Unfortunately, all of these institutions are also under assault by the Obama Administration — just ask Catholics). It is only right that this happens outside of Washington: they have relationships and personal knowledge where the federal bureaucrat only has red tape. Then again, conformity is much easier when everyone has to fill out the same form.
But let’s return to the debate. Barack Obama would have you believe that he’s always been a fan of the free enterprise system. Others would tell you that he was against free enterprise before he was for it. Neither is true. No, if President Obama is a friend of free enterprise, then Greece is a model of economic success — and also a friend of free enterprise.