"If You've Got A Business, You Didn't Build That"

Posted: Jul 17, 2012 8:39 AM

Stumping for re-election in Virginia over the weekend, President Obama channeled faux Native American and genuine collectivist Elizabeth Warren in disparaging individual accomplishment:


"Look, if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own.  You didn’t get there on your own.  I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart.  There are a lot of smart people out there.  It must be because I worked harder than everybody else.  Let me tell you something -- there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there.  (Applause.) If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help.  There was a great teacher somewhere in your life.  Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that 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 the companies could make money off the Internet. The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together. There are some things, just like fighting fires, we don’t do on our own.  I mean, imagine if everybody had their own fire service.  That would be a hard way to organize fighting fires."

When President Obama said the private sector was "doing fine" in June, many commentators called it a gaffe.  It wasn't.  This is what the president believes at his core.  He thinks American economic strength is derived not from private enterprise or individual industriousness, but from the collective -- and ultimately, the government.  These remarks subordinate God-given talent and personal industry to a twisted, government-centric vision of the social contract.  Merit and achievement is seen not a virtue, but as a happy, government-aided accident.  Of course the vast majority of successful people received help and guidance along the way, but that doesn't diminish their individual accomplishments.  Of course civil society needs government to shoulder some core responsibilities, such as paving roads and fighting fires, in order to flourish.  But that doesn't mean that society at large is entitled to ever larger slices of private pies that benefit from the existence of basic infrastructure and the rule of law.  I'd also bet that quite a few individuals who have devised business plans, hustled, attracted capital, logged exhausting hours, hired workers, and erected companies from scratch might strongly dissent from the president's arrogant and dismissive assertion that they "didn't build that."  Charles Krauthammer is appalled:


National Review calls Dr. K's takedown of Obama "epic," and I can't disagree -- but he focused primarily (and effectively) on the president's political contradictions.  Perhaps more useful is George F. Will's essay on the substance of the broader argument.  Here's what Ms. Warren said last year, prompting hosannas from many liberals and eventually Will's exquisite column:

"There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. You built a factory out there — good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. . . . You built a factory and it turned into something terrific or a great idea — God bless, keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.”

Sound familiar?  Will turns the Obama/Warren argument on its head:

Such an agenda’s premise is that individualism is a chimera, that any individual’s achievements should be considered entirely derivative from society, so the achievements need not be treated as belonging to the individual. Society is entitled to socialize — i.e., conscript — whatever portion it considers its share. It may, as an optional act of political grace, allow the individual the remainder of what is misleadingly called the individual’s possession. The collectivist agenda is antithetical to America’s premise, which is: Government — including such public goods as roads, schools and police — is instituted to facilitate individual striving, a.k.a. the pursuit of happiness. The fact that collective choices facilitate this striving does not compel the conclusion that the collectivity (Warren’s “the rest of us”) is entitled to take as much as it pleases of the results of the striving.

This insight is brilliant in its clarity and simplicity.  Conservatives believe that government has a real but limited role in performing certain tasks in order to "facilitate individual striving," as Will so eloquently puts it.  Liberals increasingly believe the opposite: That individual striving (such as it even exists) is only possible when we all band together, and that the collective "we" -- i.e. government -- ought to decide what percentage of the resulting commerce it deserves to keep.  I'll add one additional point: Obama's statement also implies that individual intelligence and diligence are not, or shouldn't be, particularly relevant factors in evaluating one's success.  This stems from an egalitarian worldview that seeks to achieve equal outcomes, often through government intervention.  The fact is that life isn't fair and isn't equal.  Some people are smarter than others.  Some people do work harder than others.  And when one or both of those traits manifests itself in individual accomplishment, it is to be applauded -- not sneered at and diminished.

UPDATE - I just hopped of a Romney campaign press call on these remarks.  It featured small business owners from Ohio, Florida, Virginia and Pennsylvania, who teed off on Obama's comments.  They were all excellent, and each story should be turned into an ad.  What you'll probably hear about the call, however, is Romney surrogate John Sununu's comment:  "I wish this president would learn how to be an American."  He quickly clarified that he was talking about the American method of job creation.  Mainstream media figures are already seizing on Sununu's initial grenade against Obama as the story coming out of the call.  This is how they operate.

UPDATE II - The RNC's having a field day: