Ever since Sarah Palin ran around proclaiming that Barack Obama is a “Socialist” there has been an unrelenting effort by the right to portray the president as someone beholden to foreign ideas. Whether it flows from the fever swamp of right wing media or from the lips of Mitt Romney and his surrogates there has been a concerted effort to define the president as un-American. Furthermore there has been a noticeable lack of political courage among Republican Party leaders in denouncing these attacks. What’s even more interesting is that when it comes to being out of step with the American people a recent NBC / Wall Street Journal Poll shows that 54% of the respondents see Obama’s views as being in the mainstream vice 51% for Mitt Romney. However it might just be worth looking into just how beholden some of Obama’s critics are to foreign ideas and influences.
Let’s start with Paul Ryan and his conservative fellow travelers. A recent article detailing Ryan’s formative years, “Conservative Star’s Small-Town Roots”, stated of Ryan’s path to individual responsibility and maturity: “It followed him into college, where he immediately took a passionate interest in the canon of conservative economic theorists and writers — Ayn Rand and Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman and Ludwig von Mises — who inspired the up-and-coming generation of libertarian-minded activists and lawmakers.” Odd but with the exception of Milton Friedman there’s not an American among those from whom Ryan draws upon for his fundamental principles. Both Hayek and his mentor von Mises, were born in the late 19th Century and are major contributors to the Austrian school of economic thought. Ludwig von Mises formulated his theories in a world where there were relatively few industrial but many agricultural or undeveloped economies. India was a still a British colony, Brazil largely agricultural and China was still dominated by European spheres of influence. Globalization as we now it today was unheard of and hardly imagined. The ideas and influence of von Mises would significantly affect Friedrich Hayek.
Ayn Rand was born in Czarist Russia in 1905. As Jennifer Burns, a Stanford professor, points out Ryan’s affinity for Rand is somewhat odd as she would have found plenty to critique in Ryan: “Mr. Ryan’s advocacy of steep cuts in government spending would have pleased her, she would have vehemently opposed his social conservatism and hawkish foreign policy. She would have denounced Mr. Ryan, as she denounced Ronald Reagan, for trying “to take us back to the Middle Ages, via the unconstitutional union of religion and politics”…Mr. Ryan’s rise is a telling index of how far conservatism has evolved from its founding principles. The creators of the movement embraced the free market, but shied from Rand’s promotion of capitalism as a moral system. They emphasized the practical benefits of capitalism, not its ethics. Their fidelity to Christianity grew into a staunch social conservatism that Rand fought against in vain.” As Burns puts it, Ryan and the conservative embrace of Ayn Rand reveals “a window into the ideological fissures at the heart of modern conservatism.” To Burn’s observation one could legitimately add that Ryan’s affinity to foreign ideas, as propounded by Rand and others, may be more than a little out of step with American society today. Moreover, the essential economic question is, are economic theories formulated in an era before globalization still really relevant today?
Then there is the rhetoric of Mitt Romney who, when not defending his opaque tax history or policy specific free campaign, carries on about the virtues of capitalism and the history of our republic and how it is so very American and how Obama fails to see that connection. The odd thing about all this prattle about capitalism is that capitalism itself is a European idea with its roots in the 13th Century Italian and Dutch mercantile cities. The first joint stock company was founded in Britain in 1555. The use of contracts to formalize and regulate business transactions goes back at least as far as the Roman Empire. When one examines the technology and structures borne of capitalism: banking, ocean transport, steam power, railroads, suspension bridges and the factory system, to name just a few, all are of European origin or found there way to America via Europe. Beyond economics there are the origins of representative government itself. Neither democracy nor elected representative government is an American invention. As Fred Anderson points out in Crucible of War, the early resistance on the part of colonists in North America to the Stamp and Quartering Acts wasn’t for the purpose of parting company with the British Crown, it was because the aggrieved felt that their rights as Englishmen had been abrogated.
The socio-religious justification for capitalism itself is of European origin: “The development of capitalism in northern Protestant countries, such as the Netherlands and England, has prompted the theory that the Reformation is a cause of capitalism. But this states the case rather too strongly, particularly since the beginnings of capitalism can be seen far earlier. Nevertheless there are elements in Reformation thought which greatly help the development of capitalism. This is particularly true of the Calvinist variety of the reformed faith, which becomes the state religion of the Netherlands after the Great Assembly of 1651…Calvinism positively encourages the purposeful investment of money, by presenting luxury and self-indulgence as vices and thrift as a virtue. It even subtly contrives to suggest that wealth may itself be a sign of virtue.” Along with the religious justifications for engaging in money making there is the concomitant rise in the sanctity of the individual, a fundamental idea that predates the American Republic and which is essentially a European idea. When it comes to defending America many of the tools we use, iron hulled ships, tanks, rockets and the application of the airplane to modern warfare all have their origins in Europe. The first principles of aerial dogfights were developed by German ace Oswald Boelcke in WWI, the principles of the aerial bomber campaign came from Giulio Douhet, an Italian and the fundamental theories on armored warfare that the Germans would perfect and that we would copy came from Europe. As every American knows, it was German scientists who provided the brains behind our own space program.
The point of all of the aforementioned isn’t to be a primer on Europe’s influence on America, it’s to point out that the right-wing rant about Obama being beholden to “foreign ideas” is both illogical and contrary to history. As a simple matter of historical fact, America as a nation founded upon and influenced by foreign ideas, most of which either are European in origin or were transmitted to our shores through Europe. America, like Russia, is an outgrowth of Europe and that fact can’t be denied, no matter what the political spin applied thereto. The fact that Americans have taken foreign ideas and grown them into something exceptional, in no way invalidates the fact that America, regardless of political philosophy or party, has been fundamentally influenced by foreign ideas. The political ploy of making an issue of Obama’s affinity for certain ideas of foreign origin while denying that conservatives do the same thing is both intellectually dishonest as well as logically unsustainable. If anyone in this election could be pinned with the label “beholden to foreign ideas” it would be Paul Ryan. If Barack Obama is un-American for looking overseas for certain ideas than Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan and the rest of the anti-Obama claque are as well. Perhaps many within the conservative movement would benefit from a refresher course on Western and American history. That said, in the final analysis, Barack Obama is no more un-American than is Mitt Romney or Paul Ryan, not if anyone’s interested in being honest that is.
Steven J. Gulitti
NBC/WSJ poll: Heading into conventions, Obama has four-point lead; http://firstread.nbcnews.com/_news/2012/08/21/13399788-nbcwsj-poll-heading-into-conventions-obama-has-four-point-lead?
Conservative Star’s Small-Town Roots; http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/13/us/politics/family-faith-and-politics-describe-life-of-paul-ryan.html?pagewanted=1&emc=eta1
Jennifer Burns: Atlas Spurned; http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/15/opinion/ayn-rand-wouldnt-approve-of-paul-ryan.html?_r=1&emc=eta1
HISTORY OF CAPITALISM: http://www.historyworld.net/wrldhis/plaintexthistories.asp?historyid=aa49
Evolution Of Contract At Roman Law; http://chestofbooks.com/business/law/Law-Of-Contracts-4-1/Sec-4-Evolution-Of-Contract-At-Roman-Law.html
FRED ANDERSON: Crucible of War The Seven Years’ War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754-1766 (Knopf)