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Obama’s false choice.

Here’s a key paragraph from President Obama’s SOTU address: “No single person can train all the math and science teachers we’ll need to equip our children for the future, or build the roads and networks and research labs that will bring new jobs and businesses to our shores. Now, more than ever, we must do these things together, as one nation, and one people.”

It’s a false choice, and a kind of Hobson’s Choice — where there’s really only one option offered — favoring Big Government.

Anyway, I liked Jonah Goldberg’s analysis:

As many have noted (including me in the latest issue), this formulation deploys a ridiculous straw man. Yuval [Levin] puts it well: “The individual acting alone or the entire nation acting through its government, those are the only options we have. The space between the individual and the state is understood to be empty at best, and at worst to be filled with dreadful vestiges of intolerance and backwardness that must be cleared out to enable the pursuit of justice.”

But there’s a deeper, or at least another, problem with Obama’s formulation, one that I think conservatives and liberals alike often fail to appreciate, which is one reason I keep bringing it up.

No single person can do pretty much anything.

Wait, wait. I am not rejecting rugged individualism or the Lockean notion that we are all captains of our selves. But the simple fact is that no single person does anything alone. Pretty much everything we do depends on the work, insight, guidance, or efforts of someone else. No one is alone. Even the gimp in Pulp Fiction needed help getting into that box.

This, I would argue, is a core insight of both libertarianism and conservatism rightly understood, and the fundamental tenet of free-market economics. As Hayek says, “The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.” There is embedded knowledge in everything around us. Every technology, every technique, and, obviously, every tradition is, at least in part, the product of someone else’s trial and error. I could go on and on (“You’re telling us?” — The Couch). Or you could read Hayek’s “The Use of Knowledge in Society.” (I particularly like paragraph H9.)

But the point I wanted to make while drinking whiskey on the stage with Steyn and Long is that when Obama justifies state action by saying that “no single person” can do X, he’s basically laying down a limitless warrant for state action, because no single person can do anything alone. Obama is so ideologically blinkered he thinks the free market is a place for atomized individuals playing zero-sum-games, but the fact is that the free market is vastly — vastly! — more communal and cooperative than the state is. But because Obama cannot recognize the peaceful cooperation inherent to a free society, he cannot see a natural boundary to the state’s turf, no clear place where the leash on the Leviathan snaps tight and holds it back. Rhetorically, if the standard for state action is the inability of an individual to achieve some social good alone, then there’s no limit to what the state is justified in doing.