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The Hollow Republic
From the August 13, 2012, issue of NR

Delivering the ‘you didn’t build that’ speech, Roanoke, Va., July 13, 2012 (Don Petersen/AP)

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Yuval Levin

President Obama must surely wish he could undo the campaign speech he delivered in Roanoke, Va., on July 13. That was where he offered up the view that “if you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that, somebody else made that happen.” It is a line that could haunt him right to November, revealing as it does an unwillingness to credit success and a hostility toward the culture of entrepreneurship. But the remark came in the context of a broader argument that was just as telling on a different point, and no less troubling.

After laying out his plans to raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans, the president said this to his audience:

You know, 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.

So we say to ourselves, ever since the founding of this country, “You know what, there’s some things we do better together.” That’s how we funded the GI Bill, that’s how we created the middle class. That’s how we built the Golden Gate Bridge or the Hoover Dam. That’s how we invented the Internet, that’s how we sent a man to the moon. We rise or fall together as one nation and as one people, and that’s the reason I’m running for president, because I still believe in that idea: You’re not on your own, we’re in this together.

This remarkable window into the president’s thinking shows us not only a man chilly toward the potential of individual initiative, and not only a man deluded about the nature of his opponents and their views, but also (and perhaps most important) a man with a staggeringly thin idea of common action in American life.

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The president simply equates doing things together with doing things through government. He sees the citizen and the state, and nothing in between — and thus sees every political question as a choice between radical individualism and a federal program.

But most of life is lived somewhere between those two extremes, and American life in particular has given rise to unprecedented human flourishing because we have allowed the institutions that occupy the middle ground — the family, civil society, and the private economy — to thrive in relative freedom. Obama’s remarks in Virginia shed a bright light on his attitude toward that middle ground, and in that light a great deal of what his administration has done in this three and a half years suddenly grows clearer and more coherent, and even more disconcerting.

Again and again, the administration has sought to hollow out the space between the individual and the state. Its approach to the private economy has involved pursuing consolidation in key industries — privileging a few major players that are to be treated essentially as public utilities, while locking out competition from smaller or newer firms. This both ensures the cooperation of the large players and makes the economy more manageable and orderly. And it leaves no one pursuing ends that are not the government’s ends. This has been the essence of the administration’s policies toward automakers, health insurers, banks, hospitals, and many others.

It is an attitude that takes the wealth-creation capacity of our economy for granted, treats the chaotic churning and endless combat of competing firms (which in fact is the source of that capacity) as a dangerous distraction from essential public goals, and considers the business world to be parasitic on society — benefiting from the infrastructure and resources provided by the genuine common action of the state. Of course, the state’s benevolence is made possible precisely by the nation’s wealthiest citizens, but the president seems to see that as simply an appropriate degree of “giving something back.” His words and his administration’s actions imply that he views the government as the only genuine tribune of public desires, and therefore seeks to harness the private economy to the purposes and goals of those in power.

This intolerance of nonconformity is even more powerfully evident in the administration’s attitude toward the institutions of civil society, especially religious institutions involved in the crucial work of helping the needy and vulnerable. In a number of instances, but most notably in the controversy surrounding the Department of Health and Human Services rule requiring religious employers to provide free abortive and contraceptive drugs to their employees under Obamacare, the administration has shown an appalling contempt for the basic right of religious institutions to pursue their ends in accordance with their convictions.



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