Gingrich: A sterile view of collective action

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  • 08/21/2022

Three things in particular amazed me about President Obama's inaugural address.

First, I was surprised how much President Obama had to say that I agreed with. His theme of making "real for every American" the promise of our Declaration - "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" -  is central to the Republican credo. What Republican could dispute that?

He's the only president who has ever quoted the passage in full in his inaugural address.

President Obama may very well draw something different from that passage than we would, but that's the heart of the argument we're about to have.

Second, I was surprised by all the paragraphs that were missing.

The president made virtually no mention of the economy, at a time when millions of Americans are struggling and unemployed. All he said was, "An economic recovery has begun."

He said, "The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult," but he failed to mention the oil and gas revolution taking place in the United States that offers the promise of low cost oil and natural gas for many decades to come, if we'll only seize it.

The president said, "A decade of war is now ending," and spoke of "winning the peace," but ignored the violence in Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention new danger in Mali, Algeria, Yemen, Pakistan, Iran - and for that matter, Libya. He said nothing of Mexico, where just below our border lawlessness continues to rule.

These omissions recalled in my mind the Trotsky line: "You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you." President Obama won't have the choice to ignore these matters in the real world, even if he could in his speech.

Finally, I was amazed at the gaps in his discussion of "collective action."

Much of it we could agree with: "No single person can train all the math and science teachers we'll need to equip our children for the future." This is undeniable.

Nor, the president argued, could a single person "build the roads and networks and research labs that will bring new jobs and businesses to our shores." No Republican could dispute this. In fact, no thinking person could dispute this.

Yesterday wasn't the first time President Obama has appealed to the importance of "collective action." We've heard often from him in the past few years that "there are some things we do better together."

Indeed, as a Republican I would agree and extend the claim: we do virtually everything better together.

Collective action, the cooperation and collaboration of many millions of people, is the rule, not the exception, in the modern world. It is so common that President Obama seems not to have noticed how many people are already peacefully working together every day on their own volition.

Yesterday as he was inaugurated, thousands of Americans worked to get all the necessary food into New York City. They didn't even have to be told.

Somehow, without any vote in Congress, those well-fed New Yorkers could drive to the gas station and pump fuel into their cars which thousands of people collaborated to refine from oil. Still more people worked together to extract that oil from two miles below ground, and still others worked to transport it to each of the hundreds of gas stations in the New York area. All so that their fellow Americans could drive their cars wherever they liked, on a whim.

And those cars: Somehow they were assembled from pieces made all over the world, in China and Japan, in Germany and Mexico and in the United States. Probably tens of thousands of people worked together to make each of those cars which crowd the streets of New York City.

None of them could have done these things on their own. All required collective action.

But the president's definition of "collective action" runs into trouble when he limits it to things we can do "as one nation, and one people."

When the president speaks of doing things as one people, it doesn't sound like he's talking about the kind of collective action that feeds New York City, provides it with affordable energy, and builds its cars - the collective action of small groups and large groups, businesses and charities and variously associated individuals.

The "collective action" the president speaks of is actually an inversion of real collective action, of true cooperation, of genuinely working together.

Obama's "collective action" transfers to the federal government, to someone else, tasks that we the people now do together, ourselves.

The vision he describes outsources cooperation among citizens, to government - to him, and an army of federal bureaucrats.

Those items he listed as things we must do "as one nation, as one people" are precisely the things the federal government is poorly equipped to do.

The "networks" he referred to? They're known as the internet, and we didn't make it "as one nation." Millions of us, collaborating in small groups, created it together.

Training the math and science graduates of the future? For decades, government has failed to provide equal opportunity in education for all Americans. When we achieve that goal, it will be because government frees students and teachers and parents to choose the education that's best for them, as charter schools have done in many communities across the country.

The federal government is not, as President Obama implied, the only sphere for collective action. It is not the only place where we work together.  Go through his speech and replace the words "together," "one nation," and "one people" with "the federal government," or "bureaucrats"  and you will have a better sense of why he is wrong.



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