Thursday, July 19, 2012

On Obama's "You Didn't Build That" Speech

There's a lot of talk, Facebook picture-memes, and that sort of thing going on these days about Obama's speech.  In particular, the line telling business owners that they didn't build their own businesses is getting attention.

So let's see that line and, most importantly, its context.  Here is the link to Obama's actual speech, and I will post the relevant quotes here.

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.

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 "you didn't build that" line was a stupid, stupid thing to say.  He should have said "those roads and bridges" or perhaps something about how the businesspeople had help that might not be immediately obvious.  And now it looks like he's going to pay for that politically.

Why Obama's 'you didn't build that' line may bite back

Now, about the actual content of the speech, Obama had some good points.  And I say this as a conservative.

Imagine a world where:

*Anything you built or grew could be taken from you by violent men.

*Travel from place to place is much harder.

*It was much more difficult to get an education, with only the richest people able to get it.

*Said richest people would have to spend much more of their money to pay for their own security (and those of friends, family, workers), reducing their ability to invest in promising technology or patronize the arts.

Internal security and the rule of law, transportation infrastructure, and the school system are all government programs.  I will freely admit I would not be where I am today if I didn't grow up in a peaceful suburb with a damn fine school system and public library system.  An organized government maintains the internal peace conducive to having an economy in the first place (look at how trade collapsed and everyone got poorer when the Roman Empire fell in the West) and can provide for an educational system that stimulates people's minds and trains them to succeed.

As Obama said in his speech, the Internet did start out as a government program.  One of the precursors, ARPANET, was something the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency devised to maintain communications networks after a nuclear war.  Private parties built on that to make it what it is today, but the bones of it were built by the government.  I'm not suggesting taxing Internet entrepreneurs punitively out of envy and resentment, but recognizing the reality that said entrepreneurs built on something someone else built.

This is not an argument in favor of a so-called "progressive" tax rate, but it is an argument in favor of paying taxes as a means of "paying it forward" to future generations, just as prior generations "paid it forward" for you.  This isn't leftism here, this is anti-anarchism.


  1. Well even Adam Smith supported government schools and roads. However if you support a flat tax would you also support a "cut-off" at a certain level?

  2. @ Jennifer: Thanks.

    @ Horace: I'm not making any statement in favor of a particular mode of taxation at the moment. I'm taking issue with how people are taking Obama's statement out of context.