Richard Epstein on SOTU Address

Too Moderately Moderate

Today, all the attention among the political elites has turned to President Barack Obama’s widely anticipated State of the Union (SOTU) address.  The general prediction is that the president will press a “centrist agenda” that seeks to balance the twin imperatives of deficit reduction and new job creation.  It would, however, be a serious mistake to assume that any changes in labeling will produce a parallel change in policy.  The main flaw that has dogged Obama’s progressive thinking from the outset is that on domestic issues, he believes that the appropriate path toward prosperity is a combination of new regulation with larger government spending.  Slimming down government through deregulation is a distant third on his agenda.

To see the point, think of SOTU as a continuation of the strategy that Obama followed in his well-publicized Wall Street Journal column of January 18, 2011, with its broad centrist appeal.  Well aware of the new political realities, the president’s opening sentence offered an elegant tribute to the “vibrant entrepreneurialism” that has been “the greatest force for prosperity the world has ever known.”

Taken in isolation, these words read like an endorsement of laissez-faire economics.  But in this instance, the appropriate response is caveat emptor—let the buyer beware.  Given that opening theme, we should have expected, therefore, further presidential praise of a system of private property and freedom of contract, protected by a limited government whose chief functions are to control aggression, promote cooperation, and develop infrastructure through a government funded by broad—preferably flat—and low taxes.

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