Did Missy Franklin? “You didn’t win all of those medals, someone else did.” Really? Should we not laugh? Maybe a month ago we would have, but not today. Peggy Noonan clarifies in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal: “After all, he [Phelps] and I swam in public pools, built by state employees using tax dollars. He got training from the USOC, and ate food grown by the Department of Agriculture. He should play fair and share his medals with people like me, who can barely keep my head above water, let alone swim.”
I wonder if Mr. Obama will Tweet something like this to Gabby?
What was the President’s point in proclaiming, “You didn’t build that”? His immediate thrust is supposed to be that a factory owner, e.g., earned his money leveraging tax supported infrastructure. If I’m that factory owner/small business man, then I owe my success to others and, depending on your exact read of the President’s speech, I may owe much of it to others; not just a little, but a lot; maybe even all of it. Remember: there’s no tangible right and wrong here. These demands are not cemented in anything solid, like a moral principle or a Commandment.
James Taranto traces the source of the President’s speech to a book by George Lakoff in 2004:
There is no such thing as a self-made man. Every businessman has used the vast American infrastructure, which the taxpayers paid for, to make his money. He did not make his money alone. He used taxpayer infrastructure. He got rich on what other taxpayers had paid for: the banking system, the Federal Reserve, the Treasury and Commerce Departments, and the judicial system, where nine-tenths of cases involve corporate law. These taxpayer investments support companies and wealthy investors. There are no self-made men! The wealthy have gotten rich using what previous taxpayers have paid for. They owe the taxpayers of this country a great deal and should be paying it back. [Emphasis mine]
It’s certainly true that we all stand on the shoulders of those that have gone before us. And small businesses, as we all do, use public infrastructure. What Mr. Obama and his defenders fail to mention is that I, as the factory owner, also paid for that highway and that bridge. I paid road taxes, gas taxes, tolls, fees, state taxes, federal taxes, ad nauseum. I do my share of creating and maintaining this community substructure. I got nothing here for free, and I didn’t create my company without paying for my use of public facilities.
But how awful to distain the accomplishments, the risks, the years of doing without, the hard work of those who labor to make our country and its successes possible with the obligatory, “You owe me. You were successful. I have a right to part of yours.”
I would counter Mr. Obama and Mr. Lakoff that we don’t have to give back because nothing was taken. I leveraged public infrastructure in creating my business, as we all do, tax payers and non-tax payers alike. But as I just noted: I paid my share of taxes that made these facilities possible. Today, only 40% of Americans can make this claim. What shall we require of those who also use public facilities and pay nothing? (A question for another time.)
If we were to ignore this logic of paid taxes and simply follow Lakoff’s argument, we would “share” our success (give back) only to other taxpayers. If we could figure out what we “owe” because of our use of public systems, our obligation we be to other Producers alone. And, said funds would have to be used to keep the infrastructure up; it could not be used to underwrite welfare, Obamacare, etc. Those are wealth transfers to people to whom I owe nothing even by Mr. Lakoff’s reasoning.
I believe that Mr. Obama’s ultimate goal is to show that we owe all of our success to the government; thus, the government has a right to our profits. Liberalism requires unfettered access to large sums of wealth in order to propagate. Individual successes can dampen the logic of ‘I have a right to your money,’ so it’s important to dilute these personal accomplishments somehow.
If the main thrust of the President’s (and Mr. Lakoff’s) argument is that the government is the source of these small business successes, does this reasoning make sense? James Taranto counters this fallaciousness nicely:
A self-made man is a successful man who succeeded by dint of his own effort. When [Lakoff/Obama] says there’s “no such thing,” he’s engaging in the sophistry of strained literalism, pretending that a man can be self-made only if his own effort is a sufficient condition for success. One might as well say there’s no such thing as a self-made man because we all have parents, or because God created us, or because we are the product of millions of years of evolution, or because today’s innovators stand on the shoulders of giants in the private economy.
That last point is crucial. No one denies that people alive today owe a debt to the past, but Lakoff and his fellow progressives seem to be under the misimpression that government is the only means by which we receive that sort of inheritance. The great industrialists of the 19th and 20th centuries might have paid a lot of taxes, but that wasn’t their primary contribution to the world of today.
The basic substantive problem with the Lakoff-Obama argument is that it blurs the distinction between an uncontroversial proposition (government is necessary) and a highly disputed one (government of its current size and scope is necessary and may even be insufficient). The ability to blur such distinction is a useful skill for a politician; the best way to accomplish something controversial is to persuade people you’re doing something uncontroversial. [Emphasis mine]
I’m quoting Taranto extensively here because he makes logical reasoning seem easy and rebukes the Obama foolishness effortlessly. No one is arguing against government per se. What are at stake are the degree, the power, and the control of government.
But rhetorical tropes like “There is no such thing as a self-made man” and “If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that” do just the opposite: They call attention to the way in which the progressive ideology goes against the American grain. Americans believe in rugged individualism and self-determination, and it is foolish for a national politician like Obama to mock those values.
The result of this all is another political goal, class warfare. This pits the producers against the consumers. Or, the owners vs. the employees. “The owner makes too much money. You, his employees, deserve a bigger cut of his or her money. Vote with me and I’ll get you some.”
How sad. Our nation of innovators and wealth-creators is degenerating into wealth-stealers. What was once, “Thou shalt not steal” has shifted into “I have a right to other people’s money.”
“You didn’t build that.”
Yes Mr. President Sir, I did build that. What I used in resources, I paid for, including the use of public infrastructure. I pay taxes and fees. I obey the laws. And, I do not owe you or anyone else anything. I do not have to give back, although at times I do. It’s a free choice I make, not an obligation you can rightfully thrust upon me.
And yes, Mr. Phelps did win those medals. Missy too.