A State of Arrogance
Rather than watch the State of the Union address on television, I opted to read President Barack Obama’s remarks, which is how Americans for most of our history learned of this annual message from the president. From the Thomas Jefferson administration until Woodrow Wilson’s first address in 1913 — and again from 1924 through 1932 — presidents sent their address to Congress as a written message. Even before Jefferson rejected the “speech from the throne,” as he called it, Washington refused to discuss any matters relating to “legislative matters” for fear that he might be seen as trying to influence another branch of government. These customs suggested a modest role for the president in the government and, moreover, a limited government role in the lives of Americans.
By contrast, the modern State of the Union address is carefully orchestrated both by politicians and the media to instill a feeling of awe in viewers. Like a well-rehearsed religious ceremony, participants rise and show their approval at predetermined breaks in the speech as the president releases a steady stream of policy proposals, like mystic prayers that he is confident will elevate his people. This spectacle places government — especially the president — at the center of our lives, but this is as backward as the medieval idea that the sun revolved around the earth.
Last night, Obama briefly acknowledged that America’s free-market system “sparks the creativity and imagination of our people,” but quickly moved on to extol government subsidies for, among other things, high-speed rail, broadband Internet access, and renewable energy sources. All these projects stifle individual creativity and imagination by attempting to direct innovation and economic growth from on high — they are a kinder, gentler central planning and reflect what Nobel Prize–winning economist F.A. Hayek called “the fatal conceit” that politicians know better than the dispersed knowledge of the people they rule.
In fact, it is everyday people using bits of knowledge in their particular areas of expertise who keep the economy functioning and drive it forward. Not only does the president not possess the knowledge necessary to understand and successfully redirect that multitude of choices to his preferred ends, it is impossible for him to possess it. Only an entrepreneur facing the discipline of profit and loss can discover which new energy source will prove popular. Only a rural resident weighing the costs and benefits of faster Internet access can decide whether it makes sense for him. Only a commuter running late for work can decide whether high-speed rail is more efficient than driving. The economy, Hayek explained, is the product of human action but not human design, so it must be steered by the choices of individuals free from government influence and coercion.
In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith wrote about the arrogance of the “man of system,” who “seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board.” But, as Smith points out, we are not chess pieces; each of us has different hopes, goals, and dreams — and different ideas about how to achieve them. We naturally resist the hand of the man of system when it tries to move us away from our chosen paths and ruin all the grand designs of politicians and their planners. People will flourish most when an equitable set of rules is enforced, but they are otherwise left to move about life’s board as they see fit.
Political rhetoric like last night’s speech may sound exquisite and offer hope for great improvements in the human condition, but, almost without exception, the improvements we know of came about not from a government plan but from individuals going about their lives and pursuing their own goals. Presidents may flatter themselves with the idea that they are the center of the universe, but as King Solomon, who knew something about the arrogance of public officials, wrote in Ecclesiastes, “vanity of vanities; all is vanity.”