“If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped create this unbelievable American system that we have, that have allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that; somebody else made that happen. The internet didn’t get invented on its own; government research created the internet, so that all companies can make money off the internet. The point is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together. There are some things, like fighting fires, we don’t do on our own. I mean, imagine if everyone had their own fire service. That’d be a hard way to organize fighting fires. So we say to ourselves, ever since the founding of this country, ‘You know what? There are some things we do better together.’ That’s how we funded the G.I. Bill. That’s how we created the middle class. That’s how we built the Golden Gate Bridge or the Hoover Dam. That’s how we invented the internet. That’s how we sent a man to the moon. We rise or fall together as one nation and as one people, and that’s the reason I am running for President, because I still believe in this idea. You’re not on your own. We’re in this together”
A small part of this has been pulling a lot of attention lately, but I believe the full quote merits as much attention. Obviously, America is in a political season and any little faux pas can dredge up an enormous amount of consternation. Yet, the piece being lambasted actually is quite a radical idea, albeit not one that is new.
Anyone who self-describes as a conservative is familiar with the statist argument in favor of big government that without roads, evil capitalist wouldn’t be able to capitalize in the first place. Thus, “Somebody invested in roads an bridges. If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that; somebody else made that happen.”
I think a lot of the people taking this quote out of context get it wrong. By “that” being built the President is not referring to businesses. He’s referring to bridges and roads and infrastructure, which is why he follows it, saying, “The internet didn’t get created on its own; government research created the internet.” It’s probably dishonest to take the President’s mediocre grammar and assume he is saying people don’t build their own businesses.
And I think conservatives can easily concede this misstatement back to the left without sacrificing any of the absurdity that President Obama conveyed here. Think about it, how does government build roads and bridges? Does the ink on the page of a bill dig foundations and lay steel and concrete?
No, at best, a bill commissions the use of tax money to hire private corporations to build roads and bridges. And where does that tax money come from? Exchange in the free market creates capital. People on both sides of the exchange gain, and a portion of that may find thanks to infrastructure. Some small amount needs to be direct to maintain and develop the necessary infrastructure, a far cry from what the President has sought.
When you get right down to it, no one begins all things as a group effort. Individually, we all seek better for ourselves. Insofar as we improve our lot, perhaps we may come together and work toward group goals. You cannot feed someone else if you are too hungry to lift a ladle. First and foremost we have to be responsible enough to care for ourselves, and only then can we care for anyone else.
Now, clearly America’s history of free markets (only recently encumbered with regulations, credentialization, and nationalization) enabled such overwhelming success, that many, for the first time in history, can spend the whole of their lives entirely immersed in altruism and charitable efforts. At no other period in history do you find such economic prosperity that people can be so fully deluded as to think economic factors are unnecessary in the real world.
When affluence becomes the standard, everything else becomes a social aberration where blame must be assigned for the most common condition of mankind. To that mind, the existence of poverty couldn’t be due to behavior or systematic robbing of self-reliance, but due to the lack of government directing of resources. They forget that all products exist only after someone’s effort, that someone being an individual.
Government developed roads and bridges? Maybe, but only to accommodate business success that burst the seams of metropolitan boundaries time and again. Think about it, horses didn’t need much in the ways of roads, and frequent use of carriages and carts made their own thoroughfares. It wasn’t until the automobile came about (through capitalism) that paved roads between towns suddenly became an interest of governments.
Sure, David McCullough’s The Great Bridge. Yeah, I’ve read it too and realize that a great deal of crony government deals were involved in its creation. So what? Does anyone think that New York would have put such funding behind a bridge if there were not a massive economic return in store? That bridge was created because New York realized the huge amount of revenue they could bring in with tolls and general taxation on businesses whose commerce would increase with the ease of travel over the East River. The bridge wasn’t built to create the economy; it was built to accommodate it.
Sorry, no matter how you slice cake, individual decisions remain dominant in human life, probably because we are all, conveniently enough, individuals. This is why corporations are hated so much by the left; they collectivize people. So why does the left loves the idea of large corporate governments? That’s a topic for another day.
Aside from making other assertions that ought to be factually disputed, President Obama engages in an enormous fallacy, thinking that government’s role as a lubricant to the economic machine is also the fuel for it. No, not at all! The oil is there to keep the machine from tearing itself apart, and in the case of infrastructure, it’s only to make the parts run more effectively. Individual effort is made more productive with infrastructure. It is not made productive in the first place. Productivity is birthed by profit and love for one’s family, and it’s magnified by personal liberty.
It seems odd that the left is so fond of using this argument. ‘Look how good the government is for making our roads, now let’s ban all private uses of the roads…’ It’s like saying that an electrician does such a marvelous job of putting in our power sockets that only he should be allowed to plug anything in for us. And that would be too generous in the first place, because Obama himself often complains that government is doing a terrible job at maintaining infrastructure!
As Neil Cavuto once said, “The government, with all its good intentions, is doing a piss poor job of painting the stripes on the highways, much less helping out anyone else.” Maybe Obama should focus on getting the duties laid out in the Constitution back in order, before worrying about all this other stuff he wants to do.
But I doubt it.
Why tackle those hard, necessary issues when we can blame those on predecessors and lousy $16,000,000,000,000 debt ceilings and documents so ancient they couldn’t possibly apply anymore? After all, we can just push that debt ceiling up to ludicrous-height and start spending on new stuff that’s positively harmful. Harmful to we the people, but helpful if you need to buy votes with China-backed loans to be paid back by our great-great-great-great-great grandchildren.
What’s truly scary about the President’s quote is that it betrays more than a mere lack of understanding about marketplace economics and the role of government in human life. If this is the best he can do for markets, to say that they’re the less important than infrastructure, then he is truly contemptuous toward the private sector.
The First Lady certainly thinks so. She’s been saying for years that we need fewer people in the private sector and more people in non-profits. Maybe we should ban commerce and only permit charitable efforts to use the roads. Ahh, but I’m just jabbing. The quote doesn’t advocate communism (although Obama’s mentor certainly did), so maybe I go too far.
What it most certainly does is fit the pattern of Obama’s life; it takes the responsibility for all things out of the hands of the individual and places it in government, bringing with it ownership. If government is responsible for your business success, then morally speaking, they own it, and any amount they wish to take away (in tax) or control (in regulation and licensing), it is their right to do so. Many people say that’s just and proper, but Americans becoming the pets and pack animals of an ever-growing statism is morally atrocious, an affront to the Constitution, and a sadism of dependency.
I would encourage everyone to read Frederick Bastiat’s classic work The Law. It’s free and short and powerful. “Life, liberty, and property do not exist because men have made laws. On the contrary, it is the fact that life, liberty, and property existed beforehand that caused men to make laws in the first place.” As we draw ever nearer to having governments of unquestionable power, we would do best to understand what that means and resist it.