The Case for Optimism About America

Dear Dr. Hurd:

I have been a fan for years — of your website and your books. I read ‘Grow Up America!’ at in college and it was like spiritual fuel for a frustrated and misunderstood young man.

I want to comment on the value of philosophy in moving the direction of the political debate. We elected Obama while the economy is in shambles and although this has never happened here in the U.S., I credit the relative health of the American soul (and the ideas underlying it) and NOT the power of economic factors to influence politics.

I am an immigrant from Cuba, a country that went from being indistinguishable from the U.S. in 1959 (as far as economic vitality, access to material goods, etc., especially in Havana) to being a third-world gutter, with scarcity, abject poverty, long lines and rationing in a matter of 5-6 yrs. That’s an incredible turn of events, which had zero impact on the political discussion. The statist always asks for more time, more power, more sacrifice (which is a moral ideal) as freedom withers away.

I see this country headed in the wrong direction and scarcity and economic disaster as such will not have an impact. Nevertheless, I feel optimistic. I feel optimistic because this country has a legacy (in our founding principles) that is unmatched anywhere in the world. It is this legacy and its resurrection through philosophic dialogue that will turn this country around. We have a great opportunity to shift the debate and focus on the morality of altruism [self-sacrifice] and collectivism versus individual rights and liberty — nothing else will make a difference politically.

Dr. Hurd’s reply:

You’re so right that the absence of philosophy from a political debate will make the debate meaningless. We saw that in the last election. Mitt Romney did not wish to raise philosophy at all. He didn’t raise religion (a supernaturalist form of philosophy), because he wanted to attract secular conservatives and moderates. However, he never raised any core issues relevant to political debate.

For example, he might have argued, ‘Americans should not have to sacrifice their happiness for the sake of others. In a free country, it is each individual’s right to pursue, and be fully responsible for, his or her own happiness.’ Instead, he ran on the economy and only the economy. ‘I’ll fix it, while Obama couldn’t’ is the essence of the nonphilosophical case Romney tried to make.

The outcome of the election appears to be a message of: ‘The economy does not matter.’ But upon more reflection, in light of what you say, the general response may actually have been: ‘The economy is not enough.’

It’s interesting that in Cuba you observed no political debate arising from the fact that under Communism, the vibrant and growing economy completely collapsed. This proves the point that without philosophy, no political change will ever happen. So long as self-sacrifice is considered the ideal, there’s no basis for criticizing or condemning a regime which says, ‘Everyone must sacrifice, and continue to sacrifice.’ If self-sacrificial martyrdom is the ideal, then why not Communism? And what basis is there for a growing economy in which all willing to work progress, albeit some more than others?

Incredibly, over the years, various American celebrities have gone to Cuba (Katie Couric and Leo diCaprio come to mind) and, upon return, essentially say, ‘Cuba is better.’ What they mean is certainly not economically better. Cuba is a pit compared to the United States, as well as what Cuba might have been, had Communism not overrun it. What they mean when they say Communist Cuba is better is morally better. That’s why these celebrity leftists so fervently support Obama. Obama’s explicit creed is the same as the Communists: We are our brother’s keepers, and government will enforce that creed at the point of a gun, via wealth redistribution and government ownership of industry.

Most Americans are clearly falling for Obama’s thoroughly unoriginal creed, just as Cuba fell (and evidently continues to fall for) the creed of Communism. At root, it’s all the same thing. You seem to be suggesting that Americans have not bought into the philosophy that self-sacrifice is the ideal. Perhaps so. If so, then Americans will vote for an alternative to Obama’s self-sacrificial leftism/socialism in favor of a set of political policies based on precisely the opposite philosophy. This would require a sustained campaign for individualism: The idea that we are NOT our brother’s keepers, that we are our own keepers, and while we’re certainly free to help anyone we want at any time, we’re not obliged (especially through government coercion) to do so.

Would this sort of moral-political argument carry the day against a leftist approach to ethics such as Obama’s? Your optimism suggests that it ultimately will. Unlike totalitarian Cuba, the United States still enjoys freedom of speech. But right now the leftists are succeeding at everything they take on. They have nationalized health care, and they have essentially nationalized the financial industry. The currency is completely and arbitrarily under the control of government whims. They are prepared to banish the right to self-defense via executive order. If they continue on this successful path, how long until executive orders are used to curb free speech?

The real question here is: How much are Americans willing to take? If you’re right, the ideology of individualism over self-sacrifice can and will eventually carry the day, assuming we don’t lose our right to free speech, or perhaps even if we do. Maybe an attack on free speech will be the tipping point to set off a real counter-revolution in America, against the controlling socialist left. In my mind, that’s the area to most closely watch.

In essence, you seem to be saying that these values and principles of individual freedom and self-determination are too embedded in the psyche of most Americans to be lost for good. I don’t necessarily disagree, but I’m not so sure, either.

The example of Cuba is instructive. Economic decline didn’t stop Communism from staying put in Cuba, even half a century later. Economic stagnation and decline in America might not stop most Americans from bowing in submission—or simply turning away in indifferent apathy—to the growing controls of the little men and little women we elect to be our little dictators.

The question remains: At what point will it be enough, and will a majority of Americans say, ‘Enough!’ Psychologically, it’s an issue of self-esteem, self-assertion and self-responsibility. Psychological attitudes ultimately arise from certain philosophical convictions.

It all boils down to whether we are our brother’s keepers, subject to the force of law—or we’re not. What’s your answer, America?


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