Wednesday, September 09, 2009

The Tiny Kernel of Sanity in the Insane Objections to Obama's Platitudinous Back to School Speech

In my latest FindLaw column, I hit the Obama Administration pretty hard for the deal it apparently struck last month with PhARMA capping drug discounts at $80 billion. Although I defend the notion of negotiating with industry over whether and how to regulate, I call the additional element of the deal--whereby PhARMA funds $150 million in pro-health-care-reform ads--problematic on free speech grounds. At the end of the column (which you should read if you want to make sense of what comes next), I invoke Thomas Jefferson's view that "to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves, is sinful and tyrannical."

As I explain in the column, Jefferson's view cannot be taken literally because government routinely appropriates taxpayer dollars for programs--including programs that have speech elements to them--that some people will oppose. For example, state-funded universities appropriately teach evolution in their biology courses, even though many taxpayers disbelieve in evolution. I am tempted to rescue this example by positing that evolution is not an "opinion," but I'll resist. Instead, I'll simply refer readers to the column for the distinction I draw to try to make the Jeffersonian maxim workable.

For now, though, I'll offer an observation on a different controversy: the seemingly insane notion (which I used to introduce yesterday's post) that President Obama's back-to-school speech was an effort to indoctrinate students in socialism. I am sympathetic to the view of one commenter on that post, who opined that the Obama-is-indoctrinating-students-into-socialism objection is not even designed to make any sense as rational discourse. Still, it seems to me that there could be a certain Jeffersonian logic to it. That logic might go something like this:

1) Obama and the Dems more generally favor a greater role for government in regulating and even in running the economy than I (the hypothetical rational objector to the Obama speech) favor.

2) Such government regulation and control pushes us down the path to socialism, at least in the sense in which that word is used in the social democracies of Europe.

3) Anything Obama says that will make him more popular--even if the particular statements are not specifically pro-socialist--will in turn improve the likelihood of enacting his socialist program. Therefore, I must oppose giving him any platform.

4) It's especially objectionable that Obama is using taxpayer money and student time to achieve these ends.

I doubt that many of the objectors have articulated these or other steps, but to the extent that the objections to the back-to-school speech are anything other than blind political rage, I suspect that something like the foregoing explains their underlying structure.