Saturday, November 8, 2008

Barack Obama's Victory and the Nature of Change

Change is what the American electorate have clamored for this election season, and Senator Barack Obama was elected the next President of the United States because he was able to convince American voters that he would bring change to America. As far as I know, the wisest and most widely-referenced quotation addressing the issue of change comes from Mahatma Gandhi, who encouraged us to "Be the change you want to see in the world." A true revolutionary who brought lasting change to his country and people, and a compassionate voice of love, peace, and spirituality, Gandhi was and continues to be a model of an exemplary human being. His ideas also reverberate with libertarian attitudes and premises. He once wrote, "The ideally non-violent state will be an ordered anarchy. That State is the best governed which is governed the least."

There are few who would disagree that change is necessary in America today, but we must ask ourselves what means are appropriate to affect that change. Is it okay for us to use government to help the poor and less fortunate? Or do we need to find alternatives to government in shaping our country to be a better place? To answer that question we must determine what kind of thing government is and whether its nature makes it an appropriate avenue for the kinds of change we are seeking. The thing that distinguishes government from other human institutions is that it has the sole power to levy force in order to carry out its activities. No other institutions can use force to accomplish their ends. Grabbing someone and detaining them against their will is kidnapping, taking someones property without their explicit voluntary consent is stealing, and killing someone is, with the exception of self-defense, an act of murder or manslaughter. All of these activities are prohibited and not at the disposal of private institutions. When the government carries out these functions to maintain a civil society, however, they are (ideally) legitimate acts referred to as arrest, taxation, and capital punishment, respectively.

Because government has the power of force behind its activities, any question regarding the legitimacy of government action must address the legitimacy of using force to accomplish the end in mind. This is why as a pacifist and believer in non-violence, Gandhi was astute enough to write: "That State is the best governed which is governed the least." Taking care of the poor and providing for their needs is a good and noble end. I can only imagine that few Americans would disagree. Using the force of government to accomplish this end, however, is inappropriate. Because government carries out its activities through the use of force, this is not an act of love, but one of aggression. Well-intentioned though it may be, it is not a humble act of service, but an arrogant act of forcible expropriation from others to accomplish our values. I agree that we should provide for the needs of those who are unable to do so themselves, but I would not be able to live with myself if I voted to take the money of others to accomplish these ends when I have not yet given everything that I can of my own money.

Instead of voting to forcibly accomplish the change we want to see in the world, it is imperative for our own good and for the good of others that we be the change that we want to see in the world. Take as an example, the record-breaking fundraising of the Obama campaign. According to the Federal Election Commission, Barack Obama's campaign for President raised $521,869,310 in the 2007-2008 election cycle. His supporters are energized by his promise to make health care available to all Americans. Just imagine what would happen if they had pooled all of this money to accomplish that goal with their own voluntary contributions, rather than using the money to elect someone to make everyone else embrace their vision for change. If that money had been invested and managed by a charitable trust, at a six percent interest rate, it would accrue $31,312,158.60 in interest every year... forever.

Half of that money- fifteen million dollars- could be spent each year to provide health care to deserving families in need. The other half could simply be added to the total to make it larger so that it accrues more interest the next year. Each year the principle and the interest payoffs would grow. It wouldn't take long to accumulate enough wealth to cover a significant number of Americans' health care needs. All the while, that money would be earning interest by supplying credit and investment capital to fuel more economic growth, creating more jobs and wealth for Americans, reducing the number of people who need to draw on this fund for their needs- just more icing on the cake. That is an example of being the change we want to see. That is a way to humbly create change and help others without forcing anybody to participate who doesn't want to (even if they should). If Americans did more things like that, we wouldn't need to elect politicians to change things because we would be changing them ourselves.

We must not force our values on others, especially when we are not consistently living out those values ourselves. We must change ourselves and watch as genuine personal change affects our country for the better instead of voting change into the highest offices of our country and hoping for it to "trickle down." Such behavior does not exemplify true hope and love, but cynicism and authoritarianism. That is why Gandhi was correct to say that, "In matters of conscience, the law of the majority has no place." Though the majority has voted for Obama and his means of change, I believe the alternative means are morally superior.