As the 2008 presidential election nears, and while John McCain and Barack Obama struggle to distinguish themselves from each other in terms of particular promises and goals, it is instructive to observe that these candidates are indistinguishable in terms of fundamentals.

On the domestic front, McCain promises to “take on” the drug companies, as if those who produce and market the medicines that improve and save human lives must be fought; he promises to ration energy by means of a cap-and-trade scheme, as if the government has a moral or constitutional right to dictate how much energy a company may purchase or use; he promises to “battle” big oil, as if those who produce and deliver the lifeblood of civilization need to be defeated; he promises to “reform” Wall Street, as if those who finance the businesses that produce the goods and services on which our lives depend are thereby degenerate; he seeks to uphold the ban on drilling in ANWR, as if the government has a moral or constitutional right to prevent Americans from reshaping nature to suit their needs; and so on.

Obama promises to socialize health care (under the tired euphemism of “universal health care”), as if insurance companies, doctors, and patients have no right to use or dispose of their property or to contract with one another according to their own judgment; he promises to increase the minimum wage, as if employers and employees lack those same rights; he promises to pour taxpayer money into “alternative energy,” as if the government has a moral or constitutional right to confiscate money from productive citizens in order to subsidize tilting windmills; he promises to force oil companies to fund government handouts to Americans, as if the owners of oil companies have no right to their property or profits; he promises to bail out homeowners who cannot pay their mortgages, as if the government has a moral or constitutional right to make some people pay for the financial mistakes or hardships of others; he promises to “incentivize” students to do “community service” by offering them taxpayer-funded college tuition, as if the government has a moral or constitutional right to do so; and so on.

In regard to foreign policy, McCain promises to “respect the collective will of our democratic allies,” as if America has no moral right to defend her citizens according to her own best judgment; and he promises to finish the “mission” of making Iraq “a functioning democracy” even if it takes “one hundred years,” as if the U.S. government has a moral or constitutional right to sacrifice American soldiers to spread democracy abroad.1

Obama promises to uphold the idea that “America’s larger purpose in the world is to promote the spread of freedom. . . . dignity, and opportunity,” as if we have a moral responsibility to minister to the uncivilized and the unfortunate across the globe; and he promises to negotiate with jihadists who chant “Death to America,” as if Americans will be safe from these lunatics when the lunatics give Obama their word.2

Looking past the particular programs of McCain and Obama, and viewing their goals in terms of the purpose of government presumed by these goals, we can see that both candidates hold that the purpose of government is to manage the economy, to regulate businesses, to redistribute wealth, to bring freedom or democracy to foreigners, and to defer to the will of others on matters of American security.

But this is not the proper purpose of government. Nor is it the purpose that America’s founders had in mind when they formed this great country.

A government is an institution with a monopoly on the use of physical force in a given geographic area. The proper purpose of government is, as the Founding Fathers recognized, to protect each individual’s right to live his life as he sees fit (the right to life); to act on his own judgment, free from coercion (the right to liberty); to keep, use, and dispose of the product of his efforts (the right to property); and to pursue the goals and values of his choice (the right to the pursuit of happiness). The way government achieves this vital purpose is by banning the use of physical force from social relationships and forbidding foreigners to physically harm citizens or their property. And, crucially, because government is an agent of force, it too must be prohibited from misusing force, which is why the founders wrote the U.S. Constitution, the purpose of which is to limit the power of government to the protection of individual rights. A proper government does everything necessary to protect individual rights and nothing that in any way violates individual rights.

This is the kind of government that was and is the American ideal. But it is nowhere to be found in the campaign materials or speeches of McCain or Obama. Whatever their differences, these two men are soul mates in their disdain for this ideal.

Why do McCain and Obama embrace the notion that government should manage the economy, regulate businesses, redistribute wealth, bring freedom to foreigners, and defer to the will of others on matters of American security? The answer lies not in their politics but in their ethics.

What one advocates in the realm of political philosophy depends on what one regards as true in the realm of moral philosophy. Should a businessman be free to keep, use, and dispose of the wealth he produces–or should he be forced to hand some (or all) of it over to those who did not produce it? The answer one gives depends on whether one thinks a person is morally entitled to the product of his effort–or morally obligated to serve others.

Should doctors, patients, and insurance companies be free to contract voluntarily with one another–or should the government dictate the terms of their agreements? The answer one gives depends on whether one thinks individuals have a moral right to act on their own judgment for their own sake–or a moral “duty” to sacrifice for their neighbors or “the poor” or society.

Should a nation’s leaders rationally, self-interestedly decide, given all the relevant facts, how best to defend their country’s citizens from foreign aggression and then act accordingly–or should those leaders selflessly defer to the judgments of leaders of other nations? The answer one gives depends on whether one regards acting on independent judgment as morally correct–or deferring to a “collective will” as the right thing to do.

Both McCain and Obama hold that being moral consists in self-sacrificially serving or deferring to others; thus, both hold that the individual–whether a CEO, a plumber, a doctor, or a soldier–must either sacrifice or be sacrificed for the sake of the “collective” or the “greater good” or the world at large.

“Glory belongs to the act of being constant to something greater than yourself,” says McCain.3 We “must devote ourselves to causes greater than our self-interests.”4 And such causes are to be found wherever people are in need: “Every place there’s a hungry child, there’s a cause. Every place there’s a senior without life-saving prescription drugs, there’s a cause. Everywhere there’s a child without education, there’s a cause. Everywhere in the world where there’s ethnic, tribal or age-old hatreds, there’s a cause.”5 Obama agrees, and adds: “We may disagree as Americans on certain issues and positions, but I believe we can be unified in service to a greater good. I intend to make it a cause of my presidency, and I believe with all my heart that this generation is ready and eager and up to the challenge. . . .” Americans must focus on more than “the big house and the nice suits and all the other things that our money culture says you should buy. . . .”6 We have “obligations towards one another.” The “problems of poverty, racism, the uninsured, and the unemployed are not simply technical problems”; they are “moral problems”; they are “rooted in both societal indifference and individual callousness. . . .”7 We must heed the “call to sacrifice”; we “need to think in terms of

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Craig Biddle

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Craig Biddle is the editor and publisher of The Objective Standard and the author of Loving Life: The Morality of Self-Interest and the Facts that Support It.