On Sunday May 5th, President Barack Obama delivered the commencement speech at the Ohio State University graduation ceremony. By now, no doubt, you’ve been made aware of at least one quote that stands out that Obama threw out at the graduating masses assembled before him. This one paragraph struck a chord with pretty much everyone who considers themselves a participant in the liberty movement, Ron/Rand Paul supporter, Libertarian/libertarian activist, anarchist, voluntaryist, or just someone who generally thinks government sucks.

It went a little something like this:

“…Still, you’ll hear voices that incessantly warn of government as nothing more than some separate, sinister entity that’s the root of all our problems, even as they do their best to gum up the works; or that tyranny always lurks just around the corner. You should reject these voices. Because what they suggest is that our brave, creative, unique experiment in self-rule is just a sham with which we can’t be trusted.”

Ohhhh boy, there’s a pretty bold faced declaration, eh? Warnings of tyranny should be rejected because those warnings undermine the idea of self rule. Understandably, the liberty movement went appropriately nuts over this, plastering the whole of social media with responding quotes from everyone from Thomas Jefferson to Queen Amidala. The central theme being that tyranny, in fact, is something worth warning about.

Queen Amidala in Star Wars Episode IV

However, focusing on this minor word of warning isn’t what we should take away from the speech. The larger problem is the main thesis of what he was saying, which wasn’t that dissenters should be avoided and that the government knows all. The point was that every student there should strive to achieve success because they owe it to society to do so, and that part of that success would be dependent on them being active in the nation’s political process. Doing so made them good citizens, and good citizenship is a key measure of how successful they were in life.

It would be easy enough to rip apart the President’s own contradictions in the speech. For instance, his warnings against lobbyists seems to stand starkly against his warnings against tyranny and his own actions during his presidency. But I’d like to argue against the general theme here, that success is tied to citizenship and that one should strive for success because they “owe it” to society. Quite frankly, Mr. President, this is an amazing load of garbage.

For starters, success isn’t some arbitrary measurement that can be applied to everyone equally. We all measure our own success differently. Be it having the most money, owning the most things, providing the best life to our kids, being happy, harvesting the largest crop, or simply paying the bills on time without worry; “success” isn’t ultimately something that is defined for us. Success is something that we define for ourselves. To accept that someone, even a president, can demand such a thing from us is to give the power of deciding what success is to someone else. Which flies in the face of the idea of self governance. To decide what it takes to be successful is to decide how we will measure our own lives, and that is a decision that society should have very little to do with.

Secondly, there’s this idea of citizenship that somehow the only way one can be a good member of society is to do something for society as a whole.

Two problems here, the first being that we shouldn’t decide to do things because those around us need those things done. We should decide to do them because we, as individuals, want to do them. As an example, every student that listened to this speech had decided a major, not because they thought the world needed more accountants or engineers or anthropologists or schoolteachers, but because they, the individual students, felt some personal bond to that calling. That bond is what will lead them to do as well as they can in whatever field of study they decide to pursue, not some abstract demand from society. The second problem is this idea that being a good member of society and being a good person are two interchangeable ideas. They simply are not. Saving someone from a burning building may make you both a good person and a good citizen, but not saving them and not expecting anyone else to save them (especially at the risk of their own life) would not necessarily make one a bad citizen. Being a good citizen isn’t defined by what others may demand of you, but by what you demand of others. If those demands involve infringing on someone’s individual rights, then you are not a good citizen. Beyond that, citizenship has nothing to do with a person’s actions, no matter what “good” a person may do. The simple fact is, we do “good” things because we, as individuals, want to do them. We save people from burning buildings, not because our neighbors tell us to, but because we inherently know that people should be saved from burning buildings. Society, and as a result citizenship, has practically nothing to do with us doing “good” things.

And as a counter, let me say this to the students from Ohio State, or any recent graduates who may happen to read this. You do not owe society anything. Just as society owes you nothing. However, you owe yourself everything. In whatever manner you seek success, make sure that it is on your own terms. And in the course of seeking that success, if you ever come across a burning building with a few people trapped inside, think about doing what you can to pull them out. Beyond that, watch out for folks who try to scare you into acting one way or another, or even worse, those who try to inspire you to act in certain ways. Whatever your actions are, make sure they are yours. “Success”, whatever it is, just might follow. Regardless of what any “leader” says.