“President Biden stands before a divided Congress and a polarized nation,” the pundits declared minutes leading up to the president’s entry into Congress. It seems like any comment on the United States and American politics desires to emphasize as much as possible our political and cultural divisions while lamenting a lack of unity. The rhetoric is meant to demoralize individuals. In the midst of chaos and demoralization, who is to help us? Not ourselves but the government.
“The story of America is a story of progress and resilience…We are the only country that has emerged from every crisis stronger than when we entered it.” Good start. But to whom is this story of progress and resilience really benefiting? The people or the government?
If Biden’s task was to make Americans feel empowered as individuals and hopeful for the future, the president failed. Biden’s opening of progress and resilience quickly descended into a lecture about the superiority of government action in improving our lives. It became a gloating list of what the government has done even as people feel worried about their lives and future.
The president quickly took to the bullhorn on economics and regurgitated old talking points about building an economy from the bottom up and out instead of the top down. Inflation, too, which has hurt many Americans, was sold as “coming down” and “falling” even though most Americans remain worried about the economy and are racking up credit card debt. Biden only highlighted a handful of personal stories in his speech (the best parts of his speech) and then fell back into constantly lecturing about how he and the government have been doing so many things for the American people—but do the people feel it? Do the people really think the government has made their lives better or harder? Many feel the more the government does the worst their lives become.
Biden’s speech was not about how Americans are being empowered as individuals and families within their communities but how the government knows what is best for you and how it is supposedly helping you in all things and how it will continue to do so.
Thomas Hobbes, in the Leviathan, famously said, “A plain husbandman is more prudent in affairs of his own house than a Privy Counsellor in the affairs of another man.” When our contemporary privy counsellors: the president and elected officials, even media officials who act as their mouth pieces, tell American citizens the economy is great while they are suffering, it is a middle-finger to the intelligence of common citizens who know more about their finances and economic hardships than what government officials are telling them. But that’s the problem now, isn’t it? We’ve created a class of educated managers and planners who do genuinely believe they know what’s best for everyone else.
Individual agency is being subsumed in this process of collectivized managerialism and constant dependence on government in all facets of life.
The insights of Hobbes, despite his association with a collectivized leviathan, amount to his recognition of the diversity of passions within human psychology. Hobbes is more political psychologist than political philosopher, though he tends to be remembered as a political philosopher. For Hobbes, individuals are most prudent over the affairs of their own lives because of their personal experiences and their daily living in dealing with the manifold realities of existence, not to mention the particularities of their own passions. No one is better disposed to knowing the reality of their own life better than the self.
The divide in America seems to reflect this problem of individual liberty and experience against the collective in its vision of universal good and theoretical blueprints for tomorrow, the want for individual liberty and empowerment against the creeping encroachment of big anything: big government, big tech, big world. In many ways, the political squabbles we’re suffering from comes from Hobbes’s insight and those who disagree with it: do individuals and their families have more prudence in their own affairs or does the government and its attendant bureaucrats? There are many “privy counsellors” in modern garb: federal bureaucrats, most of our elected officials, the institutions and think tanks of the Beltway Establishment, not to mention the World Economic Forum. All are telling the people what is best for them despite having no experience of the lives of the people whom they claim to be helping. Make no mistake, Joe Biden is one of those modern-day privy counsellors derided by Hobbes.
Many Americans feel uneasy about this encroachment of collectivism left or right. “I have your back,” Biden famously said many times. What does that really mean? Moreover, do Americans want the government hunkering over their backs, watching their every move, and telling them what is best for them? Who has the greater prudence in daily affairs: the individual with a wealth of personal experiences and gritty know-how or the government and its bureaucrats, managers, and regulators who lack the wealth of personal experiences and come with a one-size fits all policy plan?
When Biden repeatedly said, “Let’s finish the job!” to whom did he have in mind? Undoubtedly the government. The government will “finish the job” and “get the job done,” but will the people become empowered and free as a result? Or will we, as individuals, continue to slip under the grip of the new privy counsellors in the twenty-first century: the bureaucrats, managers, and elected officials whom the broad mass of the American people feel are antagonistic to their livelihoods?
If the “backbone of the nation is strong,” what backbone is Biden talking about? The government? Or the citizenry in its multitude individualities? Certainly not the citizenry in its multitude individualities.
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