Interpreting “you didn’t build that.”

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Political Commentary

I had not planned to comment on the president’s “you didn’t build that” gaffe, but as it echoes in the blogosphere it becomes difficult to avoid. It’s not so much his original statement that has me thinking, but the various ways in which people on both sides have interpreted it—most have it wrong. Let us explore. For the innocent bystanders, here is the section of his speech in question:

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. 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. 

There is no hiding that Obama said “If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that.” Was it out of context? That depends on how one interprets the context. But there is no way to spin this where Obama comes out clean. There are three possible meanings:

Meaning #1: If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that
This is the more literal interpretation some have jumped on because, well, that’s exactly what he said. Even looking at the context, it seems to be pretty cut-and-dry. Unlike Mitt Romney’s supposed “I like firing people” comment, which was both misquoted and taken out of context throughout the media (actual clip here). But I really do not think this is the best interpretation, because I do not think Obama is an idiot. Wrong? Absolutely. But not so dumb that he would claim something so obviously false. More likely, he was saying that business owners didn’t build the roads and bridges. Even then, he should recognize that it is the private sector that builds the wealth to pay the taxes to build the roads. The next interpretation suffers from the reverse problem: it’s obviously true.

Meaning #2: People depend on one another
Obama’s defenders have taken to this spin on his remarks, that he just meant we are all in this together—we live in a complex social world where success requires that we interact and support one another, standing on the shoulders of our fellow man. That’s lovely and inspiring, but who is arguing with that? Conservatives are not claiming that we literally succeed on our own. The most ardent anarcho-capitalist still believes that we benefit from a dense network of social interdependence. Obama’s statement was meant to claim a position in contrast to his political opponents, who are specifically calling for less government and more free-market solutions. We should interpret his remarks in the context of that general debate. If somehow he did mean it this way, then he is being incredibly disingenuous about what his opponents actually believe.

Meaning #3: Government help is the key to economic success
Given Obama’s worldview when it comes to economic/social justice, I have no doubt that what he intended to suggest was that people who are successful only achieved it because of help they received—directly or indirectly—through government programs.

To illustrate “help” he points to teachers, firemen, statesmen, and “investments” in roads and bridges. What do these have in common? Government. They are examples of people acting in a collective sense, rather than as individual participants in the non-political society. Most interpretations have missed this point—he is not talking about community in the general sense. He does not cite parents, friends, bosses or role-models. He doesn’t bring attention to supermarkets, cell phones or the computer. And he only mentions the internet insofar as the government had a role in its early development (which had nothing to do with what it looks like today, thanks to private enterprise).

Our president believes economic inequality is morally wrong because some people get “help” and others do not. For him, success is a game of chance and favors that should be leveled out by government. The role of the state, therefore, is to create and redistribute wealth and opportunity. It becomes our nurturing mother and our god.

After LBJ’s “Great Society” programs and four years of the Obama administration, America now has 1 person living off of government for every 1.25 people paying into it through private-sector work. Our government debt is now greater than the combined annual incomes of every American citizen. In fact, by 2016 we will have the 5th highest debt-to-GDP ratio in the world. I would say this president has been successful in bringing us closer to his vision of America, and he is campaigning on taking it further.


Update: Obama and his supporters have come out strong, attacking Republicans for taking his words out of context, and insisting that what he meant was that “we’re all in this together.” As I pointed out in this blog, there’s more to that than meets the eye. He has a very political understanding of what being “in this together” entails. This speech was about taxes and spending, not families and communities.

1 Comment

  1. Lubos,Reading the fast comments, I noctie a lot of people reference affirmative action (AA). I think that what AA has done to minorities, and especially blacks, is really unfair. A few years ago (while living in Decatur, GA), my wife needed a very special operation. The doctor who was to do it (at the Dekalb medical center) was one Dr Kevin Belcher (poor kid, growing up with that name!). When we went in to meet him, I saw that he was black (not an uncommon occurance in Georgia!), and my first (involuntary) reaction was to wonder how qualified he was. I was really irritated at myself for this reaction, although I have found that it is quite common, even among blacks.I realized that the only thing to do was the same thing as I always do with other doctors — normal due diligence: (Talk to the guy, see how he answers questions, shares information, look for red flags, etc. — too involved to fully explain here.)After 45 min with Dr. Belcher, I was convinced that there wasn’t anyone else in the world I would rather have do my wife’s operation: He had helped develop the operation, had done perhaps 40% of the ones so far done anywhere, was a real geek (good in a surgeon) — only wanted to talk/explain about the operation, volunteered lots of information (like: How the operation could go wrong, how he would know what was happening and get things back on track, etc., etc., etc.)So, Dr. Belcher did the operation and it was a complete success. I was really irritated at my initial questioning of his ability, and especially that this had to be a common reaction to a person who was probably 1st in the world in his speciality.I hope to see the day when this kind of reaction is forgotten in the past, but I don’t expect to see that as long as “Progressives” keep trying to fan the flames of separatism and victimization.

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