David Brooks On Obama's Inaugural Speech: No Mention of Capitalism


In his opinion article addressing President Obama's second inaugural address, David Brooks took umbrage with the fact that President Obama left out some of the places where America's competitive streak has resulted in shared success for the country. "I was struck by what he left out in his tour through American history. I, too, would celebrate Seneca Falls, Selma, and Stonewall, but I’d also mention Wall Street, State Street, Menlo Park, and Silicon Valley."  

Brooks' main criticism is that, in highlighting the places where the country has shown its compassionate side by turning to a collective vision of shared values and rights, President Obama has failed to give proper dispensation to the places of the country where individualism has actually brought about progress, just as granting civil liberties to previously disenfranchised groups is also progress.

What Brooks fails to realize is that we already have a place where individualism and competition are celebrated. That place is the market, where the invisible hand sweeps aside those who do not adapt and provide quality products, while raising up those who are creative and innovative.  Competition does not need another champion in the form of government, especially not at this moment in history when Wall Street bankers are still being left off the hook for bringing the world economy to its knees. Government at this time must be the voice of compassion; indeed, government should reflect the compassionate part of humanity.

The struggle between compassion and competition is one rooted in human nature, and government and the market represent this dichotomy. In this two-party system of ours, we have one wing that wants a bigger government, to maximize the compassion we show each other, and another wing that seeks to minimize compassion in exchange for market competition. 

This is why the Republican Party is so adamant about seeking to address the debt problem by cutting entitlements. In their minds, we are sabotaging the millennial generation’s competitive edge for the sake of compassion to the elderly. Democrats, on the other hand, want to preserve entitlements because it is seen as a sign of our good nature that we should honor the pledges we made to the generation that built this great nation of ours.  

The battle between government and the market in the public sphere has swayed back and forth throughout our history. At this moment in our shared history, the people chose a vision of government that aligns with the vision of a compassionate government.But in previous moments, such as the Reagan revolution, we had become fed up with a stifling tax code and a bloated government. Government is not the answer to our problems, Reagan said. Government is the problem.

I understand that millenials are divided about what role government should play, though many pundits seem to be assured that millenials are firmly in the Obama square. When I was living in Denver, I roomed with two staunchly libertarian mid-twenty year olds. Libertarianism seems, on the face of it, to be a good middle ground between the liberal and conservative versions of government. Libertarians are squarely behind the conservative mantra of market competition, but they do seek to produce a more compassionate foreign policy and a more open social vision of rights and liberties granted to previously disenfranchised groups. However, in keeping with their embrace of the market, libertarians are vehemently opposed to the welfare state. Though many young people are jumping to libertarianism because of its aversion to war and inclusiveness for the gay population, we know where libertarianism falls on the dividing line between compassion and competition. It does not seek a government as compassionate as the kind that liberals would want to embrace.

Our culture is one in which we celebrate the winners of competition, people such as Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Jeff Bezos. Countless books are written and interviews conducted about these brilliant people and their creative minds. Because they are at the fore of our culture, we lose sight of the fact that for every Bill Gates, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of entrepreneurs who fail, their businesses reduced to the rubble on which Atlas stands. Never mind the fact that some people simply do not have the ability, or genetic traits, to turn them into the risk-taking success stories our culture idolizes. Government is there for these people, the losers of competition or the simply risk-averse. 

How compassionate that government will be, is up to the people. Reflecting a week after the second inauguration of President Obama, the people have chosen a compassionate government.  They are fed up with how cozy the government has gotten with the winners of competition, who are already celebrated without the help of government. The market has already chosen the winners, and they already receive enough adulation. Most people want decent middle class lives, security in the form of a social safety net, and a safe place to raise their children. We do not all have the dreams to be the next Steve Jobs.  Let us hope that President Obama fulfills the will of the people.