Progressives

You Own a Business? "You Didn't Build That," Says Obama

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President Obama in Roanoke, Virginia.

If there's a starker statement of philosophy — repulsive, Borg-like philosophy — than that offered up by President Barack Obama during a stump speech on July 13, in Roanoke, Virginia, I have yet to see it. Basically, in the course of the usual round of chest-beating and opponent-slagging, Obama ridiculed the idea that individuals can claim credit for their successes, and instead touted collective effort — with the government taking the lead, of course. As you might expect of a politician more concerned with reelection than accuracy, his chosen examples weren't as supportive of his case as his speechwriters intended.

There are a lot of wealthy, successful Americans who agree with me — because they want to give something back.  They 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.  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.

That "fire service" reference comes courtesy of Obama's speechifying outside a Roanoke fire station, I'm sure that the idea of a non-government fire department seemed ridiculous to whoever crafted that speech, but a few minutes with Google might have saved the president the embarrassment of using such an inappropriate example. I don't know about Roanoke, but the last time I was in Annapolis, Maryland, the walls of buildings in the old part of town still bore 19th century metal badges indicating the fire service that protected that property. For about 150 years, in continental Europe, Britain and the United States, such badges commonly indicated specific fire companies, or the insurance companies that would compensate responding volunteer fire brigades. The system had flaws, as does any, but not to the extent that was claimed when clever politicians turned fire protection into a "modern" government service — and, along with police departments, later joined by other municipal agencies, rich sources of lucrative patronage jobs (PDF).

As for the Internet … Are we still humoring people who pretend that the modern Internet, with multimedia browsers, world-spanning commercial opportunities and unparallelled opportunities for free expression is a triumph of government planning? Government might have created standards for connecting computers from different organizations, but, as Robert David Graham of Errata Security writes:

What's important about the Internet is that the OSI standard failed. It's not the standard of today's Internet. The government backed the wrong horse, so to speak. Instead, today's Internet is based on TCP/IP—a networking standard the government tried to kill off.

Most people concede that government played a major role, but as a participant in something that was happening anyway. Some commenters, such as Peter G. Klein, argue that the government's early involvement pushed the evolution of the technology behind the Internet in unfortunate directions. What's clear, though, is that what we value about the Internet, such as streaming video, vast quantities of free porn, easy shopping, sharing of data and the like are private developments by innovators and entrepreneurs.

True, it could be said to any of the entrepreneurs who built innovation upon innovation, "you didn't get there on your own." But that could be said of anybody who wasn't raised by wolves, though even then, the wild doggies deserve their due. That's because healthy societies are the result of voluntary, collaborative efforts that build on what has already been developed. People enrich themselves and others by cutting deals with others or by picking up the baton from those who have gone before — that doesn't entail some formless, endless obligation to the collective, embodied, of course, by the nearest politicians with their hands out.

"You're not on your own, we're in this together," says Obama. Well … Sort of. We all work at things that complement each other, simply because we won't get rewarded if nobody has any need for what we're doing. To the extent that government officials manage to properly perform jobs involving the maintenance of infrastructure that other people use while keeping the bridges to nowhere to a minimum … That's great! They paved the roads without screwing up! But they get paid for that, just like the phone company and the gas company, and Sprint doesn't constantly insist we kiss its executives' asses because our phones work from day to day.

There's something deeply disturbing in the world-view of those who would minimize the achievements of those who pursued the ideas, took the risks, invested the time and money and made things happen. And it's no more encouraging to hear such people claim individual achievements as the property of the amorphous collective led, always, by themselves. The only value in such pronouncements is the warning they offer to those of us who seek something with a bit more promise for anybody with a hint of self-respect and a whisper of inspiration.