There’s no such thing as a free lunch

J. Peder Zane Author, Design in Nature
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Evan Thomas spoke for many liberals when he declared, “Obama’s standing above the country, above the world, he’s sort of God.”

Conservatives dismissed this description as hyperbole, along with the The One’s own proclamation that his election would mark “the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.”

Given the recent controversy over contraceptives, it seems that Thomas was less toady than prophet and that a deep humility explains why our president is not a regular church-goer.

What is a god, after all, but one who can defy the laws of man and nature? Someone who can perform miracles. Obama appears to have done just that by providing contraceptives for free — zip, zilch, nada — to millions of women. We don’t have to take his word for it, or that of his stenographers in the mainstream media. Leading conservatives including Charles Krauthammer, Mona Charen, Bill O’Reilly and Brit Hume have all used the word “free” while discussing the issue without forcefully debunking the president’s claim.

First, the obvious. Nothing in our society — save, perhaps, for air and road kill — is free. Someone always picks up the tab. The “free” contraceptives will be paid for by higher insurance rates just as the “free” health care provided by the single-payer systems in “civilized” nations is financed through taxes. The same holds true for just about anything else you can think of; all actions are choices that have costs and consequences. Even the poor who pay no income tax suffer when the rich who give them jobs and fund their services are overtaxed. This is a law of economics that even our president cannot subvert.

In fairness, I’m not the first to say this. Nevertheless, this unbending fact is too often passed over or ignored so that otherwise insightful commentators end up debating the issue of “free” contraceptives without focusing on the dangerous illusion that underpins it. Obama’s repudiation of the laws of economics is as dangerous as his assault on religious liberty.

To address our challenges effectively, we must pay careful and unrelenting attention to the language we use to describe them.

In 2006, the liberal linguist Geoffrey Nunberg observed that, “The left has lost the battle for the language itself.” Americans of all stripes, he continued, “can’t help using language that embodies the worldview of the right.”

The debate over contraceptives suggests that the tide has turned. Obama’s true miracle is his ability to convince Americans that the mythical free lunch is alive and well.

It is embodied in the president’s mantra that the problems of the 99% can be solved for free by soaking the 1%. It informs Obamacare, which promises to insure millions of Americans, provide better services for all and save money! Silencing the calls for “shared sacrifice” that were so popular during George W. Bush’s presidency (along with anti-war protests), Obama is telling the nation: “Ask not what you can do for your country but what your country can give to you.”

My problem here is not with his policies — there are strong arguments for greater access to birth control, targeted tax increases and health care reform. It is that the president is not being challenged vigorously — everywhere, all the time — on the idea that his choices have no cost. It’s true that Republicans, who share a great deal of responsibility for the $15 trillion of “free” government we’ve consumed, are calling the president out on some of his reckless spending. Unfortunately, their capitulation on the ongoing raid of Social Security funds through the payroll tax holiday brings their commitment into question.

It’s always seems easier to kick the can down the road, to take the easy way out — until it isn’t.

Political leaders have long recognized the power of language. Orwell did not invent the idea of doublespeak, he reported it. The American left has long held that people are puppets who can be made to believe anything. They assert that campaigns are won and lost based on who spends the most money; that corporations make us buy products we don’t want or need through clever advertising. Obama believes he can win re-election by promising everything for nothing.

In the short run, this strategy often works.

Ultimately, however, narrative is no match for consequences. Rhetoric cannot defeat reality. Human beings can defy the laws of man and nature for only so long. This should be our mantra.

J. Peder Zane is an Assistant Professor Journalism at St. Augustine’s College. His new book, written with Adrian Bejan, is “Design in Nature: How the Constructal Law Governs Evolution in Biology, Physics, Technology, and Social Organization.”