Virtue, Not Xenophobia

R. A. of The Economist says of yesterday’s State of the Union address, ‘A zero-sum world is a world without hope, and if Mr Obama is convinced that’s what we’re in then I don’t see much need for him to stick around.’ Since I believe in the existence of a common good, I agree with this judgement.

Others, thinking this assessment an overreaction, have raised the point that the State of the Union address in an election year is a political speech designed for reëlection. I shall pass over the fact that the State of the Union address, made by the President as head of state, should aim primarily to edify all, not to score points for one faction. The address may in fact be aimed toward reëlection, but even granting that this is acceptable, I cannot but view the President’s speech with a measure of distaste, especially if he claims liberal ideals.

We should always hope for progress that benefits all, even if we believe strongly that the way we propose is the wisest way. A political speech for reëlection should have nothing to do with envy and everything to do with incitement to virtuous labour. We are America, gifted with industriousness and freedom of invention, and have sometimes been the stupor mundi. Perhaps this is long gone. Perhaps this no longer appeals to Americans. Perhaps we’re no longer inspired to outdo the rest in ennobling the world. But if we will be so mean-spirited as to desire victory at all costs – if this be the moral squalour to which we have sunk – we deserve to sink like a rock.

‘Don’t let other countries win the race for the future,’ our President says. There is both truth and avarice here. Blue-collar folks see foreign manufacturing as threatening; indeed, some of my own family members think outsourcing rather unpatriotic. I, too, have my grievances against corporations that (by nature, it seems) pursue their own gain without attachment to human bonds, the same thing I hold against the great Leviathan of Thomas Hobbes. I even believe our country’s failure to invest more heavily in magnetic confinement fusion energy will cost us if the bulk of resulting jobs goes to Korea and Japan.

None of this, however, constitutes a good excuse for xenophobia. If the world moves inhumanly fast, the point is to take care of grandma, not to profit from a neighbour’s misfortune, nor to curse him with hope of gain, nor to wager against him. In the end we all lose by encouraging vice instead of virtue.

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