“If you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own.” These were the words of Barack Obama addressing a crowd of supporters on Friday in Roanoke, Virginia. These are indeed shocking words for a president so fond of self-congratulation: a man who claims to have personally saved the auto industry, transformed healthcare and killed Osama Bin Laden. But he goes on to elaborate: “If you’ve got a business – you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.” It seems that, in this world, one may justly take credit for any success no matter how great, unless it involves business.
Personally, I believe this hypocrisy to be of a more careless than malicious nature. Last autumn, Elizabeth Warren gave almost the exact same speech, which so energized her supporters that some rapturously described her as a contender for the 2016 presidential election. It is easy to see how, in a desperately close race, the president might seek to breathe new life into his campaign with the energy of Warren’s speech.
Nevertheless, this kind of argument bears examination, since, like so many liberal platitudes, it won’t simply go away. The basic idea is that nobody could succeed in business without the government to protect their property, educate their workers and provide infrastructure for the shipment of their products. Therefore, businessmen who take credit for their success and complain about the intrusiveness and inefficiency of the government are really being ungrateful. These businesses and wealthy individuals should be taxed to a greater degree in payment for everything the government has done for them. Simply put, to quote the president, “Those who have benefited most from our way of life can afford to give a bit more back.”
The logic of this argument begins to self-destruct here. If businesses and wealthy individuals were not already paying back their “fair share” the government would not be able to provide the services Warren and Obama talk about. According to the CBO, the richest 20% of the country already pays 67.9% of the tax burden. Even outside the realm of taxes, business still “give back” to society by providing jobs and helpful products that make life easier and more enjoyable. Obama is right that the government has potential to invent some useful things like the internet, but it is private industry that made the computer with which I can access the internet as well as the websites that make the internet worth accessing. More to the point, the internet is one invention, against countless thousands of inventions created by private industry. Government did not invent air-flight, sound recording, cars or light bulbs — all modern luxuries contributed to our lives not by the government, but by businesses and individuals. Contrary to Obama and Warren’s idea of a spoiled and ungrateful business community, we are presented with a spoiled and ungrateful government, which seems to show little appreciation or gratitude to the source of so very much of its funding and the prosperity it rules over. Government welcomes invention and innovation only so far as it provides for increased government regulation.
More disturbing is how this argument only to applies to business. No mention was made of artists, who benefit from the availability of public education even more than businessmen and often rely on government programs like the National Endowment for the Arts for employment. If no one succeeds alone, shouldn’t artists have to sign their work with not just their name, but the name of the schools they attended and the teachers that inspired them?
The country that gave the world the concept of a “self-made man” who succeeds against all odds by his own determination, morality and hard work seems to have abandoned this idea in favor a new collectively made man, who creates nothing of his own, except what the all encompassing state provides for him and allows him to own. The “self-made men” of America created the industry and prosperity that have sustained America’s success and standard of living. What will be the contribution of the collectively made men?
Will McMahon | University of Missouri | @WilliamAMcMahon