Barack Obama’s Political Philosophy

(Author’s note: this is a post about ideas, not politics. It is unrelated to current events. It simply examines the philosophical views expressed by our Chief Executive.)

In a number of speeches, the President has outlined his views on the legitimacy of government. Following the Tea Party success in 2010, he resolutely responded to those who attack government. In his words:

The democracy designed by Jefferson and the other founders was never intended to solve every problem with a new law or a new program. Having thrown off the tyranny of the British Empire, the first Americans were understandably skeptical of government. Ever since, we have held fast to the belief that government doesn’t have all the answers, and we have cherished and fiercely defended our individual freedom. That is a strand of our nation’s DNA… But what troubles me is when I hear people say that all of government is inherently bad…For when our government is spoken of as some menacing, threatening foreign entity, it conveniently ignores the fact in our democracy, government is us. We, the people, hold in our hands the power to choose our leaders, change our laws, and shape our own destiny. (Michigan 2010 speech)

And again recently:

Unfortunately, you’ve grown up hearing voices that incessantly warn of government as nothing more than some separate, sinister entity that’s at the root of all our problems; some of these same voices also doing their best to gum up the works. They’ll warn that tyranny is always lurking just around the corner. You should reject these voices. Because what they suggest is that our brave and creative and unique experiment in self-rule is somehow just a sham with which we can’t be trusted. (Ohio State 2013 speech)


In a sense, there’s little that is new. The President’s view is not necessarily statist in the sense that everything must come from government. He holds the fairly standard view that markets should be robust, but that market failures and other societal needs require government action. His views about the size of government are of course more expansive than that of most readers of this blog, but they are not out of the mainstream: they summarize the standard progressive position.

Yet it is not this antinomy between large versus small government that I want to discuss here. It is, rather, the President’s concept of legitimacy of government action. His view is disarmingly simple: the government is us. The government is not morally separate from us. We are part of it; indeed, that is the centerpiece of the “brave and creative and unique experiment in self-rule” that the President evokes. This view seems to suggest that when the government acts, it’s we who act. So if (say) the government snoops on journalists, then it is us who are snooping on journalists. This is because government and people are one undifferentiated entity. In our democracy, the government can never be tyrannical by definition, because whatever harm the government may inflict, it is self-inflicted. The people has harmed itself, and, of course, volenti non fit injuria (to the willing no injustice is done.) So when you lash out against government you are not lashing out against some sinister entity that is alien to you, but at an institution of which you are an integral part. Such view owes much to Rousseau and his concept of the collective will. Immanuel Kant flirts with this idea as well (see the Doctrine of Right on legislation, and his claim that the concept of revolution is an oxymoron). It is also reminiscent of some of Hegel’s organic conceptions of the state.

The idea, however, does not stand scrutiny. The government is an agent that we hire to do a certain job. The government is not us. It is contractually related to us. It has a fiduciary duty toward us, the duty to provide the services for which it was hired. This does not prejudge the question of how large that mandate should be. As any economist knows, fiduciary relationships often generate agency costs. The government sometimes acts ultra vires, it oversteps its powers, it spins out of control. When that happens, the position that the government is separate from us, that it has turned against us, is perfectly intelligible and justified. With the possible exception of Rousseau, the view that democratic procedures are sufficient warrant for government action is not supported by any credible philosophical view.

Let me put the matter a different way. In a well-functioning democracy, a government is composed of officials who play certain roles defined by laws, by rules. When officials perform coercive acts unauthorized by those rules, they violate the rights of the subjects. Those acts are impermissible acts of coercion. If this is correct, then the insistence that our “unique experiment in self-rule” somehow preempts us from warning about the dangers of government must be rejected. With the exception of anarchists, few people take the view that government is a “separate, sinister entity.” What libertarians and others do is to warn against the excesses of government, its threats to our liberties, its inefficiencies. Above all (and this is something the President overlooks), critics of government, armed with the tools of public choice, point out that the bigger government becomes, the greater is the threat it poses, the larger is the probability that it will malfunction and exceed its rightful function.

At a more general level, we should reject the President’s organicist theory of the state, this notion that we’re “in it all together,” that we are moving parts of an organic whole where we are all responsible in unspecified degrees for government excesses because we are the government. While Obama is right to reject the view that our constitutional democracy is “a sham with which we can’t be trusted,” we must and should retain our healthy skepticism about it, our Lockean intuition that governments are never the appropriate object of unlimited trust.

  • The is the democracy as justice fairy-dust philosophy. All you have to do to justify any government action is sprinkle on a few references to the fact that we have elections and voila, no problem. All outcomes are perfectly just. It’s also an easy cop-out to use when your side happens to be winning elections. No need to actually make a philosophical argument for WHY your preferred policies are just. No matter that the minority thinks they are a gross violation of thier rights. They can’t be, because they participated in the electon ,therefore they agree to whatever the outcome is. Instant justice powder.

    • adrianratnapala

      More is at work than political opportunism.

      Anyone who talks politics eventually says something of the from: “X than the status quo, so we should do X”. But progressives are more likely than other people to blithely not worry about what actually constitutes that “we”. Obama here is better than many others: instead of preserving the blind-spot he is making clear that the machine of government is very often “our” proxy. And he is upset that people can see an ugly side to this.

  • les kyle Nearhood

    When the president states this philosophy, (sorry, I know you want to speak about his philosophical views, but bear with me.) I fear that he is disingenuous, or if he does hold those views in his mind, his heart betrays him. Because all the actions of his government are scornful of markets and look upon them as either something to manipulate or punish.

    This is an important consideration because It is my view that when people hold a philosophy which elevates their own expertise above those of the people then they will institute some forms of tyranny EVEN IF, they do not intend to.

    • matt b

      I guess it depends on what you mean by elevating “their own expertise above those of the people.” I mean Bryan Caplan wrote a whole book about how we should turn over economic policy to experts to shield it from the unenlightened predisposition for statism among the masses. I basically agree with him that such an approach would, in many ways, be desirable. But I don’t think you can say that it’s an approach that rejects the elevation of expertise and I think it’s an approach that a lot of libertarians are sympathetic to.

      • les kyle Nearhood

        Not me.

  • Robert M.

    “Let me put the matter a different way. In a well-functioning democracy, a
    government is composed of officials who play certain roles defined by
    laws, by rules. When officials perform coercive acts unauthorized by
    those rules, they violate the rights of the subjects. Those acts are
    impermissible acts of coercion.”

    The problem is not that government officials perform acts not permitted by laws. Crucial to the libertarian position is the argument that government can be impermissibly coercive even if it doesn’t break any law code. That is, you have to present an accout on how the relevant law is made or discovered (like natural law, which I actually reject) externally to the law-generating process in the parliament. As long as you don’t do it, your argument does not preclude the possibility of, say, Congress just passing the law justifying its intuitively impermissible actions and, therefore, it also doesn’t preclude the Obama’s organicist state theory. I suppose that your use of the word “rules” is intended to point in this direction (like in “informal rules of social conduct” or something similar), but it needs to be fleshed out in detail, as it is a contentious issue in philosophy.

    • Fernando Teson


  • Damien S.

    I like a lot of this post. But: “With the exception of anarchists, few people take the view that government is a “separate, sinister entity.”” Rather more than a few IMO, at least going by what they say, if not always by what they do.

    • matt b

      I think that’s right. One of the things that bothers me about many libertarians is reflexive opposition to all government intervention in a sort of a priori sense. I mean you’ve got some liberals who defend any government program no matter how thin the evidence on the ground is for its efficacy. But libertarians are guilty of the opposite much of the time. Many of us also fail to be appropriately skeptical of corporate power, including power that emerges in mostly free markets such as the way low skill workers are often treated like subhuman creatures. And then there’s the silly “positive liberty isn’t liberty”, “even vouchers are socialism” and all the other assorted orthodox foolishness so skillfully dismantled by many on this blog and elsewhere.

      • Kevin

        Well, to be fair, justifying the use of force is a large moral hurdle to overcome. As such, government intervention should start in the negative column.

        • matt b

          I completely agree. The presumption should always be against government intervention with the burden of proof on those who call for it.

    • Michael J. Green

      Not just that, it’s pretty much a necessary component of being a libertarian, I’d say. Viewing the state as ‘artificial,’ an institution created outside of civil society, goes back to the birth of liberalism. Civil society either makes some kind of contract with that institution (Locke and liberalism in general), or merely tolerates it (Hume and, I’d say, libertarianism in general).

      At least, that satisfies the separateness aspect. As for sinister, you don’t have to look very hard to find that sentiment in early American thought, Bastiat and the French liberals, Herbert Spencer, etc. I’m pretty sure that, by “necessary evil,” Paine didn’t mean, “Eh, it’s not that bad, just watch out for the excesses.” Evil is evil.

  • Cristian Dimitriu

    Although I agree that Obama’s claim that the “government is us” is a bit confusing, I do not see any indication that the current administration is becoming a Rousseaunian monster, or a massive human rights violator. On the contrary, the idea that citizens have rights and that the government cannot overstep its authority is quite consolidated these days.

    • I would note the individual mandate as an exception. While SCOTUS did reject the commerce clause argument for the mandate, the idea that the government’s power to “regulate” included the power to order people to perform certain actions (purchasing insurance), outside of a state of war or martial law, is a departure from the “government is us” tradition. As Justice Kennedy put it, that would be a fundamental transformation of the relationship between the citizen and the state, putting the state in the role of dictating details of private citizens lives. And many liberals did in fact espouse the argument that it’s perfectly fine for the government to order people to do things (as opposed to not do thing) under the commerce clause.
      Plus, since SCOTUS did uphold the law on the tax argument I’d say it’s questionable whether it makes any difference. We now have a precendent for the government (which is supposedly “us”) ordering ourselves to do things that we don’t want to do, and which, in many cases, isn’t even in our financial interest in any rational universe.

  • Chris Bertram

    Where to start? The idea that the *state* is identical with the people is, for Rousseau, a normative claim: it is about the legitimate state. Whatever the merits of that view, he hardly denies that things can go badly wrong and that the *government* can usurp the powers that rightly belong to the people! That’s actually a key theme of the Social Contract. Kant, it is true, requires us to treat more or less any actual government “as if” it incarnates the general will and a lot of modern liberals seem to have a similar view: so long as governments meet threshold criteria of legitimacy then they should be treated in this manner (Thomas Nagel perhaps?).

    The idea that the government is an agent of the people whom they hire to do a job for them is likewise a normative claim. I take it you are channelling Locke here, but the state-government relationship in Rousseau is actually quite similar. The people as a whole set the constitutional framework, but the magistrates do the actual governing, they are not-identical with the people and should be replaced if they fail to their job.

    • Fernando Teson

      Yes. I do not mean to suggest that the view that “government is us” is inconsistent with replacing officials who do wrong. But I do suggest that such view entails a relationship between the citizen and those governmental failings that is different to the relationship that would exist if that citizen treated the government as separate.In the former case, the citizen somehow share in the responsibility for the misdeed; in the latter he does not. In other words: I don’t think BO is merely restating the Social Contract view. He is advancing a more organic theory of the state, where we act collectively and are co-agents with whoever uses coercion in the name of the state. At any rate, you will have to ask them what they mean by “government is us.”

    • Fernando Teson

      Also, there is an unstated controversial premise in the argument: that an elected government acts on behalf of everyone, including those who voted against it. I see no reason to accept this.

  • The government is not us, but it is also not not us. State institutions emerge organically from human history and human nature. They are not exogenous. They were not grafted onto human societies by Martians. Obviously in practice government agencies are comprised of humans who face laws and incentives that make their interests both more narrow and distinct from “the public interest.” But keep in mind that Obama views himself as fighting back against nearly a half-century of a radical movement that has opposed all state intervention in social and economic matters. I do not think it is judicious to argue that Obama is obviating the distinction between the governed and the government as much as he is reasserting that they are not wholly seperate entities, one a villanous parasite feeding on the other.

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  • I agree with the spirit, but not with the letter. This is the bit I don’t like:

    “The government is an agent that we hire to do a certain job. The government is not us. It is contractually related to us.”

    That is just false, isn’t it? I never hired the government to do any job. In fact, for just about any job I want doing, the government would be the last agency I would think of hiring. And given the mess it makes of all the jobs it does, if I had hired it, I would fire it. The government is just there. It evolved out of banditry, and it still practises banditry, though of different kinds.


      Well said.

    • Fernando Teson

      Good point, Danny. I should have said: “AT BEST, the government is an agent that we hire….etc.” I was trying to be as charitable as I could with the position I was criticizing. If the government evolved out of banditry, well, then is even MORE disconnected from us.

  • ThaomasH

    I do not see that a “we have met the enemy and he is us” theory of legitimacy implies less skepticism of the limits of state action than an agency theory and it does seem to account for the feeling of personal shame when my agents do something morally repulsive like torture prisoners.

  • TheIndependent

    You guys need to look at what Obama does, not what he says. Obama is a master deceiver in the Clinton mold. Obama governs as an anticolonialist, which means that he seeks to diminish American influence as his primary foreign policy objective. Obama’s social policy is also standard anticolonial fare, being essentially a gradual move towards more and more socialism.

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