Obama’s War On the Individual

Should you ever wonder what fuels the President’s incessant drive to grow government, look no further than his recent commencement speech at The Ohio State University. One could be forgiven for concluding that he hates the Founders’ vision of America as a country of free individuals.

As intellectual descendants of the Renaissance, the Founders inherited a healthy skepticism of political and religious authority. They also inherited a healthy respect for the individual. These two ideas are complementary–rejecting the authority of monarchs and priests is an empty gesture without recognizing one’s own authority on what to believe and how to act. Individual liberty in body and soul was recognized as the end for which government was the means.

The Founders recognized that while government is necessary to secure individual liberty, it is also a threat to that liberty. Their solution, never explicitly applied before in human history, was to formally recognize freedom as the point of government.

Were freedom possible without government, the solution would have been easy–eliminate it altogether. Unfortunately, we resemble dieters more than alcoholics–an alcoholic can live without drinking, but a dieter still has to eat. Government is both necessary and dangerous–a dilemma for which no better solution exists than the US Constitution.


The fact that individual liberty is the central point of our political system does not mean people must act always and only alone. No one, libertarians included, believes that collective action is bad per se. Working together is uniquely human and marvelously effective in getting individuals what they want. Other than making sure no one initiates violence against another, though, no central authority is needed to dictate how, when, and for how long groups of people work together. Projects and the groups of people who execute them form, function, and then disband as dictated by the needs of the individuals who comprise them.

All of this is completely lost on the President, whose only notion of collective action is the government-enforced variety. To his way of thinking, there is nothing a group of people can do that can’t be done better when directed by government. No good is ever created that cannot be amplified by authority–especially authority over business.

The very businesses Obama seems to loathe are wonderful examples of what human beings can achieve working together voluntarily. Yet individual ambition is denigrated by the President as if it were 1) a bad thing, 2) not in fact part and parcel of any collective achievement. Individual ambition drives both individual action and cooperation with others who value similar things. A baseball player works to improve his individual stats, but also tempers his individual ambition for the good of the team. These two drives are complementary, not antithetical. The player who thinks only of himself will soon find himself a pariah among his teammates. The one who lacks individual ambition will never even make the team.

These trade-offs are worked out quite well without the all-knowing eye of Obama’s preferred kind of government watching o’er. My beef is simple–no one should be forced to engage in collective action absent a deeply compelling reason, say, fending off a Canadian invasion. First, it violates individual rights, which means any alleged improvement to the collective is immaterial. Second, evidence of the government’s efficacy in improving upon the voluntary cooperation of individually ambitious citizens is scant.

The President’s contempt for the individual extends well beyond economic rights. His apoplectic accusations of Congress “gumming up the works” on issues like gun control reveal a deep-seated conviction that he knows better than each of us how the world should look and who should get to do what when. He at times appears to lament the fact that he has to bother checking with anyone at all. Someone should have told him in which country he was seeking office.

Last, Barack Obama detests that anyone is even allowed to object to his vision of a collectivist nation. His admonition to graduates not to look for “tyranny lurking around the corner,” as apparently some of us do*, speaks volumes about what he really wants deep down–to impose without restraint what he thinks is best–for you, for me, and for whoever is to be. I don’t think we need to look around the corner anymore.


*Guilty as charged.

About Terry Noel

I am an Associate Professor of Management and Quantitative Methods at Illinois State University. My specialty is entrepreneurship.
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6 Responses to Obama’s War On the Individual

  1. Another stellar article!


  2. Dick Richards says:

    In my profession as a project manager, I find myself in the frequent position of needing to get a group decision made, so I have tried to make myself more informed on the topic of group decisions. Through my studies, it has become very clear to me that, unless you have been assimilated into the hive, there is no such thing as a group decision; there are only indvidual decisions made in the same direction.
    I say all of that to underscore Professor Noel’s point that when we are working together in a group we do not lose our individuality. Even if we are so far left we decide to join a commune, everything we do is still an individual decision.


  3. Dick Richards says:

    The problem with the collectivist approach in which the group is put ahead of the individual – I believe Mr. Spock said, “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” – is that when there is a conflict between the rights of the group and the rights of the individual, there is no where to draw the line; the line always ends up being drawn as a big X over the individual. On the other hand, when the collective is removed from the equation – when the collective has no rights – then the question of where to draw the line is simple. The rights of one individual end where his actions begin to infringe on the rights of another individual.
    The founders weren’t just men of high character; they were men of high learning, who had studied the history of governing. They understood those truths and that’s why they did everything they could to limit the power of the collective.


  4. Dick Richards says:

    And one last thing about Mr. Spock’s line “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” which was uttered when he put his life on the line to save his shipmates: he was making an INDIVIDUAL decision for himself, which was his full right to do. But it could not and cannot be right for the Many to have made that decision for him.
    Is it bad form to quote a character from a TV-show-turned-movie-series to illustrate such an important issue?


  5. andygillette says:

    Great article, Prof. Noel. Having done a lot of reading of primary sources from the Founding Era lately, I tend to agree w/ you and the Pilon article you linked to–I think the Founders definitely had a profound sense of “us” in a collective sense (we are, after all, a country and general agreement on things like a Constitution or the need to hold politicians accountable are important), but time and again in the Constitution and other writings they seem nearly obsessed with limiting what one human can coerce another human to do through government.

    Dick Richards, you might check out “The Science of Success” by C. Koch. He bases his management philosophy on the principles of free societies, and finds some interesting ways to deal with the issues you wrote in your comments (i.e. recognizing that we are all individual actors, while working in concert, but not as a mythical “collective”).


  6. andygillette says:

    Great article, Prof. Noel. I tend to agree with you and the Pilon article you linked to, Re: the Founders seemed nearly obsessed with limiting what one human being can coerce another human being to do via government (though they definitely do make room for a lot of “collective” actions at the state level).

    Dick Richards–you might check out “The Science of Success” by C. Koch. It’s a management philosophy based on the principles of the free market. He has some interesting things to say in there, and in some ways addresses one of the things you mentioned above (i.e. wrestling with the understanding that all decisions are made by individuals, even those who act in concert in a group or organization–he discusses motivating groups while fully assuming individual drives/motives/concerns etc.).


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