Lab Rat America

As the Democratic convention rhetoric solidifies into cigarette ash and economic performance figures assail us, one line from President Obama’s speech should continue to intrigue and horrify us. Dealing with what he describes as decades-old challenges “will require common effort, shared responsibility, and the kind of bold, persistent experimentation that Franklin Roosevelt pursued during the only crisis worse than this one.”

Experimentation? Did Obamacare grant him a medical license? Did he at least obtain a human subject release form? All he knows is that he must be the total (“bold, persistent”) master of the situation. Whether we are the subjects of behavioral economics or of happiness commissions or rats in a maze is of no matter.

But there is far more here than Obama’s apparent admission of ignorance—it is his vision of a scientific controlled experiment that most alarms.  Such “bold, persistent experimentation” requires a tyranny. The subjects of experiments, no more than inmates in a prison, may not control their treatment. Scientific utopias demand elimination of freedom, as we know from dystopian speculations from Plato through Bacon to Skinner.

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Is This Progress?

President Obama is a man of history—that is, he places himself quite deliberately in historical context. His much-derided self-comparisons with Abraham Lincoln come immediately to mind. But those are clearly superficial. More telling is his choice of Osawatomie, Kansas for a speech that drew comparison to Theodore Roosevelt’s “New Nationalism” speech delivered there 101 years before.  Roosevelt called for a vast expansion of federal government responsibility—a Bureau of Corporations and legislation involving families. Obama claims the legacy of both the Great Emancipator and the Rough Rider to justify his own dramatically more radical schemes.

Obama struck again in his recent speech at Roanoke, Virginia, with a speech that begs comparison with Woodrow Wilson’s “What is Progress?” address from his triumphant 1912 presidential campaign.

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