President Obama recently generated a furor with his speech in Roanoke, Virginia, in which he stated:
There are a lot of wealthy, successful Americans who … know they didn’t — look, if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own. You didn’t get there on your own. … If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. … If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.
This has created fury from the right and unease from the center, as well it should. The fury and unease arise because this statement represents a grotesque distortion of an important truth, even more troubling than a downright lie. Later in the speech Obama paraphrases the Declaration of Independence, subtly distorting it and deeply subverting its meaning:
[I]n this country, you have some God-given rights: a life in liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and a belief that all of us are equal — (applause) — and that we’re not guaranteed success, but we’re guaranteed the right to work hard for success. (Applause.)
Actually, Mr. President, the Declaration says that “all… are created equal,” implying equality of opportunity not equality of outcomes, not “all of us are equal.” A nuance, perhaps, but a critical one. The claim that “we’re guaranteed the right to work hard for success” — is also insidiously distorted. A “right to work hard for success” is belied when coupled with the assertion of a (constitutionally nonexistent) paternalistic federal power to intervene to take away as many of the fruits of that success as should please our liege to take.
The recipe by which Americans have prospered lies not in some sort of state action but in opportunity. Obama uses a warped logic of federal noblesse oblige to dispense a bag full of goodies from tuition tax credits, to a mortgage refinancing credit, to public works projects. His litany brings to mind the indictment of FDR’s New Deal in Liaquat Ahamed’s Pulitzer Prize winning Lords of Finance :