Obama’s Inaugural Address: the Citizens’ Citizens

Presidential inaugurations are, at best, similar to royal marriages in England, where simple people dream of the Prince Charming; at worst, they resemble nationalist orgies where people proclaim their faith in, and submission to, their dear leader. There was both in Barack Obama’s inauguration today.

Not everything was bad in the inaugural address. For example, he mentioned the need the need to “find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity”. He mentioned “freedom” seven times, and “liberty” five times—although it was sometimes with restrictive connotations, like this idea of defining liberty differently than before.

These mentions of liberty and freedom look merely rhetorical, part of an inescapable but empty ritual, a bit like what communist talk became as China developed a market economy after Mao’s death. People there had to “put a red hat” even if the communist rhetoric had become meaningless. (See my review of Coase and Wang’s How China Became Capitalist in the current issue of Regulation.) The “oratorical highs” that the Financial Times observes were more of the nature of pretentious verbiage around statist conventional wisdom.

In its 2,126 words, the inaugural address contains 80 “we” (excluding the five “we, the people” borrowed from the Declaration of Independence) and 93 “our”. For “we must do these things together, as one nation, and one people”. In other words, the we’s and our’s pretend to aggregate in one whole the different values and preferences of all Americans.

The impossibility of such an aggregation has been demonstrated by a long strand of economic and political analysis that runs from Condorcet in the 18th century to Nobel Prize winner Kenneth Arrow in the 20th. This impossibility can be illustrated by asking what was meant exactly when Obama said that “[w]e must . . . empower our citizens”. Who is this “we” to whom the citizens belong? Answering “the state” and its “commander in chief” points to the dictatorial ghost in such rhetoric. If, on the contrary, the “we” and “our” refer to all citizens, including humble Obama himself, we have an absurdity, for then “our citizens” mean “the citizens’ citizens”.

Of course, Obama is not the first politicians to utter statements that are either dictatorial or nonsensical.