By now almost everyone else on the Corner has had his say on President Obama’s statement that if a business owner has built a business, then he hasn’t really built it himself. The exact quotation you can probably sing along with: “If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.” But the quotation and the controversy it has ignited both continue to spread. So I’d like to add my two cents while they still rattle along.
It’s a damaging little episode because the quotation plays into a suspicion that many Americans, not merely Republicans, feel towards the President: namely that he’s a big government man who’s spent almost all his working life in the public sector and has no real idea of how the private sector works and less sympathy for those who work in it. This suspicion drives Democrats mad with irritation, some because they sense its power, some because they feel it to be unfair, and some because they believe it to be a concocted Republican lie.
An example of the last group is Paul Waldman who last week on the American Prospect website said exactly that. I’ll come to his exact words in a moment. But here is an extended passage from the president’s speech that in Mr. Waldman’s view demonstrates that Romney and the GOP lied when they shouted “socialism”:
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 are some things we do better together. That’s how we funded the G.I. 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.
That having been recorded, let’s indulge in a simple thought experiment. How would we defend the president against the interpretation placed on his words by Republicans (and by pretty much everyone else)? I think we might say something like this:
“Well, okay, he was ad-libbing and he misspoke. He meant to say that anyone who builds a business has a lot of help from other people in doing so, but it came out as if other people did the whole thing. I can’t complain if you exploit his misspoken line — he said it after all — but surely we should all be mature and sensible enough in this day and age not to take advantage of mere slips of the tongue that . . .” You can get the League of Women Voters to finish the thought.
But Mr. Waldman will allow nothing so temperate. His own interpretation, in an article entitled “The Meaning of ‘That’,” is as follows: “Sure, it’s obvious that when Obama said ‘you didn’t build that’ he was talking about roads and bridges. But who cares? You can take that one sentence out of context, lie about what ‘that’ in the quote refers to, and you’ve got evidence of Obama’s America-hating heart.”
And he goes on: “And yes, it is a lie, a word I use carefully. Romney and the people who work for him know full well what Obama was and wasn’t saying. But they decided to go ahead and engage in an act of intentional deception anyway . . .”
But is Mr. Waldman’s interpretation correct? Let’s amend the president’s words in line with it: “Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build the roads and bridges. Somebody else made them happen. Etc., etc.”
That might just pass muster as an interpretation in the post-modern English Language Department of the DNC. It’s how a partisan Democrat literary critic might “read” it. But even as a corrected slip of the tongue, it makes no sense. It’s cryptic and abrupt and it directs you away from the president’s argument rather than toward a fuller understanding of it.
To save the president from this presumed slip of the tongue, we would have to say something more like this: “Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build it alone. You had help — the people who built the roads and bridges so that you could take your goods to market, the teachers who gave you business skills, the people who built the Internet where you market your products. And all those people were what we call the government.”
That not only makes a limited kind of sense, it also fits in perfectly with the rest of the president’s speech. But there are problems with it from my standpoint and from Mr. Waldman’s. The first, from my standpoint, is that both in the original Obama speech and in my (third) proposed amendment to it, the list of helpers is artificially restricted to agents and achievements of the government. Obama talks of roads, bridges, the G.I. Bill, fire services, and the Internet. (Even within these examples he exaggerates the role of government. Fire services are often volunteers in the U.S. And while writing I heard Rush Limbaugh, drawing on Gordon Crovitz’s WSJ article, establish persuasively that it was corporate and individual innovators who put together the Internet from the disparate technical advances of government agencies that would otherwise have been devoted to much less important tasks.) But anyone who has built a business has relied for help far beyond government: on his workers, his investors, his suppliers, his banker, his neighbors (in bad times), and local branches of groups such as the Rotary, the Jaycees, the Chamber of Commerce, and the Junior League. The market, civil society, and government all play their part in making a business possible. But government is probably the least helpful of the three; its help comes at a heavy price in taxes and burdensome regulation; and its importance in helping businesses to succeed is trivial in comparison to the efforts of the actual business owner. Every U.S. citizen has government as a potential business partner, but somehow businesses do not spring out of the ground unless some individual or a few partners put in the “sweat equity” to start and sustain them.
I happened to be reading the chapter on “Community” in Jonah Goldberg’s new book, The Tyranny of Clichés, when this controversy broke. He demolished the “roads and bridges” argument, but also the underlying wider statist argument, in this crisp comparison:
It is the sort of things Romans said about the aqueducts and Egyptians about the pyramids . . . What separates our great projects from those of other civilizations are the values — moral, legal, constitutional — of those who produced them. It is the difference between inheriting a mansion from your father or grandfather and inheriting the values that enabled your father to afford one.
So much for my problem with the president’s argument. The problem from Mr. Waldman’s standpoint is worse. When the president’s argument is fully and fairly deployed, as he would wish, he is seen to be making a more radical claim about the dependence of the individual on government than his simple homespun phrases about “doing some things better together” are designed to suggest. Let us look at the life-span of Obama’s successful businessman: He is not only allowed to “thrive” by “this unbelievable American system,” his goods delivered over government roads and bridges, his efficiency improved by an Internet “created” by the government, his status improved by entry into a middle class “created” by government, but he is himself shaped by government through “some great teacher” and the G.I. Bill passed by government. His own abilities don’t explain his success — there are a lot of “smart” people who don’t make it. And if he thinks he’s done well through hard work, well, remember he had a great teacher and a college education. “Doing things together” under such circumstances means that the business owner becomes the junior partner to the government with civil society gradually morphing into semi-independent licensed agencies of the state.
People who think in this way about the individual, government and society are usually called “socialists.” They usually call themselves “socialists” in other countries. And even in America “liberals” such as Senator Edward Kennedy occasionally break down and confess their affection for “the S word.” That does not necessarily mean that the president is a socialist. He seems to me to be often tempted in the direction of state intervention, but almost as often resisting it from political prudence. But it is not self-evidently absurd to suggest that he might be a socialist at heart.
What is self-evidently absurd is to denounce Mitt Romney and the Republican campaign as deliberate liars because they quoted the president with literal accuracy and, as it turns out, with substantive accuracy too. In addition to being absurd, such abuse is also incredibly self-righteous. Mr. Waldman’s column — “yes, it is a lie, a word I use carefully. Romney and the people who work for him know full well what Obama was and wasn’t saying. But they decided to go ahead and engage in an act of intentional deception anyway ” — reads as if it were written while he was highly indignant and simultaneously high in another respect. It is something I have rarely encountered before: apoplectic writing.
One wonders what he would write if he actually came across some genuine wrong-doing.