On May 5, President Obama delivered the commencement speech at Ohio State University. Invoking the Founders, he implored graduates to embrace the “quintessentially American value[s] of optimism; altruism; empathy; tolerance; a sense of community; a sense of service”—and to reject a “society that celebrates individual ambition above all else.” It is a “sense of civic duty,” according to Obama, the notion that “we are bound to one another,” that is at the heart of America. We have “rights,” he admits, “but with those rights come responsibilities—to ourselves, and to one another, and to future generations.”
But Obama’s message is the exact opposite of America’s founding ideals.
The fundamental principle of the United States is individual rights—the idea that each individual has an inalienable right to his life, liberty, the products of his efforts, the pursuit of his own happiness. There is no “but” about these rights; they are not conditional on service to others. So long as a person does not violate the rights of others, he is properly free to act in whatever ways he chooses.
The American spirit is not, as Obama would have us believe, about “civic duty” through which “we are bound to one another.” Rather, it is about individual rights and freedom from one another—freedom to act on our own judgment for our own goals and happiness regardless of what others need or want. The essence of America is not that the individual should selflessly serve the community (that’s the essence of North Korea). The essence of America is the radical, profoundly selfish idea that every individual is sovereign and must be free to live his life as he sees fit.
In saying “this country cannot accomplish great things if we pursue nothing greater than our own individual ambition,” Obama dismisses the purpose and history of the United States, and the very concept of liberty. America was not formed so that “this country” could accomplish great things; it was formed so that individuals could accomplish great things. And unfettered individuals, peaceably pursuing their goals and cooperating with others when and as they choose do accomplish great things—as the history of America is testament. How did Rockefeller revolutionize the energy industry? How did the Wright brothers launch the aviation industry? How did Sam Walton revolutionize retail? These men and countless others did great things by thinking and acting independently and by cooperating voluntarily as their judgment dictated.
In fact, genuine cooperation among men—which Obama imagines as conflicting with “individual ambition”—is possible only when individuals are free to deal with each other voluntarily. Freedom, not compulsory service, unleashes men’s minds.
Hopefully, some of the Ohio State University graduates recognized the deeply un-American meaning of Obama’s address (not to mention his chilling plea to “reject these voices” that warn of encroaching tyranny). These young Americans should pursue futures not of sacrifice and duty, but of value achievement and personal happiness. That is what America is all about.
Image: Wikimedia Commons