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The Philosophic State of the Union
[January 23, 2004]

By S. M. Oliva

On Tuesday, President Bush delivered his State of the Union address. Contrary to the popular view, the Constitution does not require this annual exercise. Article II only directs the president “from time to time” to give “information on the State of the Union” to Congress. The framers intended the president to assist Congress in performing its legislative duties. In modern times, however, that assistance has given way to usurpation, as Congress routinely abandons its legislative powers, leaving a quasi-imperial presidency (aided by a number of extra-constitutional regulatory agencies) to exercise the Nation’s sovereign power. It’s hard to imagine one man would be up to such a task. George W. Bush certainly was not on Tuesday.

The president built his address around the consistent theme of his presidency: “compassionate conservatism.” The exact meaning of his philosophy has always been elusive, but Tuesday’s speech provided a good roadmap for the novice traveler. In short, compassionate describes the president’s metaphysics and epistemology, and conservatism summarizes his ethics and politics. On all four counts, compassionate conservatism is a philosophy repugnant to the values embodied in the American constitution and the Declaration of Independence.

Metaphysics establishes the nature of existence. It is rooted in the law of identity—A is A, as Objectivists like to say. Metaphysics establishes what is, while epistemology determines how a consciousness can acquire and use knowledge of its existence. This sounds like weighty stuff, but it’s important to understand the foundation of any philosophical system. In George Bush’s philosophy, he views existence as ultimately unknowable; he accepts, without evidence, the existence of God and a realm beyond the comprehension of man’s consciousness. This metaphysical view determines Bush’s epistemology, since he rejects reason as the sole means of acquiring knowledge. Instead, Bush considers reason and faith to be equally valid methods of cognition.

Compassion is Bush’s shorthand for acquiring knowledge via faith and emotion. The president believes that man’s understanding of the universe comes from compassion, which is his emotional acceptance of other peoples’—and God’s—perceptions of reality. By this standard, Bush finds truth in the compassionate (i.e. charitable) acts of man towards man. Ultimately, he believes, God reveals himself through such acts, and this makes true knowledge of existence knowable to man on some level.

This theory of knowledge allows Bush to accept contradictory premises. The best example from his address came when he talked about the prospects for democracy in the Middle East:

"We also hear doubts that democracy is a realistic goal for the greater Middle East, where freedom is rare. Yet it is mistaken, and condescending, to assume that whole cultures and great religions are incompatible with liberty and self-government. I believe that God has planted in every heart the desire to live in freedom. And even when that desire is crushed by tyranny for decades, it will rise again."

Bush assumes, on faith, that man instinctively possesses the knowledge to “live in freedom”. But history tells us otherwise. Freedom, liberty, and individual rights are social concepts that took centuries to develop. The United States first brought these concepts into a unified republic. But there was nothing automatic or religious about this accomplishment. And contrary to the president’s statement, these concepts are incompatible with many cultures and religions. If they were compatible, why then haven’t individual rights republics sprung up throughout the Middle East? Indeed, why haven’t they sprung up in Asia or Africa? But since Bush believes they are compatible, all evidence to the contrary, then it must be true, for faith makes it so.

On matters of ethics and politics, Bush’s compassion melds with conservatism. This means the president views rights as derived not from man’s existence, but rather from institutions invested with compassionate or mystical authority. Bush referred to rights just once in his speech, saying America’s foreign policy sought a “peace founded upon the dignity and rights of every man and woman”. But the rights he spoke of were not those derived from man’s nature, but from man’s creator, or God. All rights, in the president’s view, exist only by permission of established authorities. Or to use a more conventional conservative premise, order takes precedence over liberty.

In the section of Bush’s speech on morals (a synonym for ethics), the president points to four specific problems: illegal drugs in schools, performance enhancing drugs in sports, teenage sexuality, and gay marriage. On each issue, the president relies first, foremost, and finally on the ethical principle of duty. Consistent with a compassion-based epistemology, all men must judge their actions by the emotional needs of others. Students must submit to forced drug testing, not because it’s in their self-interest or respects their rights as individuals, but because the president says “we love you, and we don’t want to lose you”. The children must think of the emotional needs of their parents. Similarly, athletes must stop using drugs, not because it harms them, but because they must be “good examples” for the children.

On issues of sexuality, the president’s compassion meets his fear and bigotry. He calls for doubling “federal funding for abstinence programs” so that students can learn to fear their sexuality as they fear drugs. The very concept of the government directing the education of children about sex—the most important, intimate, and value-based of all human actions—is appalling. If the president believes schools may forcibly test students for drug use, would he also be open to testing students to preserve their virginity? It may sound far-fetched, but once the government claims ownership of the mind and the body, I have difficulty ascertaining the limits of that authority.

And then there’s gay marriage. This section of the speech may have been the most morally repugnant. The president openly coddled the bigotry of those Americans who would deny homosexuals their right to form and raise families on equal footing with other Americans. Bush pledged to “defend the sanctity of marriage,” as if it were something other than a man-made institution. The president couldn’t bring himself to acknowledge the existence of homosexuals, much less respect their rights. Instead, he offered this moral gem: “The same moral tradition that defines marriage also teaches that each individual has dignity and value in God’s sight”. Notice he didn’t say individuals have “rights”, only dignity and value.

The moral tradition Bush cites—Judeo-Christian morality—has not had a good track record through the centuries. Indeed, this tradition was invoked in support of the Dark Ages, the Inquisition, the Salem witch trials, slavery, the American civil war, segregation, and now homophobia. From an objective moral view, there is no difference between Bush’s defense of gay marriage’s bigoted opponents and George Wallace standing in the doorway at the University of Alabama in defense of the “moral tradition” of segregation. 

Finally, we come to Bush’s politics, the outgrowth of his conservative ethics. Since Bush relies on “moral tradition” to define his ethics, it’s logical that he relies on institutions—rather than man and his nature—to define and implement the scope of man’s rights. This is why you’ll never hear this president call for the abolition of any government department or major program; his conservatism requires institutions be treated with delicate care bordering on reverence.

Consider the president’s position on healthcare. His only veto threat of the night came when he vowed to stop “and any attempt to limit the choices of our seniors, or to take away their prescription drug coverage under Medicare”. In other words, seniors have a right to prescription drug coverage because the institution of Medicare gives it to them. Now Bush’s defenders will argue the administration spearheaded Medicare reforms, notably a limited health savings account program. This is a potentially useful reform, I’ll grant you. But it does not mitigate the president using a government program to create a new “right” that exceeds the government’s constitutional power.

And while the president said a “government-run health care system is the wrong prescription,” these words rang hollow. We already have a government-run health care system. Unlike the systems in Canada or Europe, however, the American government relies on quasi-private managed care companies to ration health care. Managed care firms receive government subsidies and special legal protections, and they charge prices consistent with the government’s Medicare rates. Yet despite this, Bush shows no signs of seeking to undo this system. If anything, his healthcare policy requires strengthening managed care, something that will only prevent the free market from taking hold.

The other major institution Bush reveres is public education. He reveres it so much, he bragged about a 36% increase in the federal budget for education. And he won’t stop there. Bush asked for expanded aid to colleges and students. He claims this will train workers for better jobs. The fact that individuals already can receive this training without extra tax dollars is lost on the president. Bush does not judge ideas on its rational merits, but on the level of “compassion” it causes him to experience. Certainly helping people attend college is charitable, but when that charity comes at the expense of innocent taxpayers, it is also robbery.

Bush’s education policy demonstrates a complete misunderstanding of education, which is not surprising given his non-reason-based epistemology. In one passage, he makes a tautological argument:

“Some want to undermine the No Child Left Behind Act by weakening standards and accountability. Yet the results we require are really a matter of common sense: We expect third graders to read and do math at third grade level - and that is not asking too much. Testing is the only way to identify and help students who are falling behind.”

When I was in third grade, I read and performed math at what New York State considered a seventh-grade level. But I was not allowed to leave third grade early, and in other states, my proficiency would have been fixed at different levels. The point is, grade levels are a construction of the government-run school system. They have nothing to do with education. Individual students learn according to their own abilities and opportunities. But government schools focus on the collective at the individual’s expense. Many parents have long recognized this fact, and either educates their children at home or place them in a private school more conducive to their child’s learning style (such as the Montessori method).

American healthcare and education suffer from the same political-economic design flaw: the free market in both has been replaced by a government-directed rationing scheme. Consumers are generally not free to purchase their own healthcare and education without working through the rationing scheme; even if they can, they’re still required to pay taxes to support the schemes. Bush never addresses this basic problem, because to do so would force him to renounce the underlying institutions, something his conservatism (and his compassion-based epistemology) won’t allow him to do.

At the end of the day, we are left not with the bold, visionary leader that some conservatives believe George Bush to be. We are left with a small man promoting small ideas. Bush may talk the rhetoric of a pro-capitalist, pro-individual rights leader, but his actions are that of a man who sees the role of government as that of a grand charity, where acts are judged by compassion rather than reason and merit. But charity is not a moral basis for government; charity is a byproduct of a successful society that produces a surplus of wealth that be shared according to the values of its producers. Unless the government is built on an unimpeachable foundation of reason, individual rights, and capitalism, true charity is not possible; what you have instead is “compassionate conservatism”, a philosophy that promotes emotional, intellectual, and political stagnation.

 

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