There has been a big buzz in all manner of venues over what President Obama said on Friday, July 13, at a campaign stop in Roanoke, Virginia. Sound bites and talking points have been extracted with great liberty, and those same little bits and pieces disected with gruesome relish. Most popular in this regard is the sentence, “If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that.”
Conservatives from all over have grabbed at that and declared that now Obama is saying that entrepeneurship and individualism are no longer viable ideas; you did not build up your own business by your blood, tears, and sweat, but by someone else’s. Obama is denigrating the value of hard work and individual effort.
Really? Is that really what he said? As has often been said, “Context is king.” Let’s put that sound-bitten sentence into its proper context. Here is the text as I found it at ABC News online:
We’ve already made a trillion dollars’ worth of cuts. We can make some more cuts in programs that don’t work, and make government work more efficiently…We can make another trillion..and what we then do is ask for the wealthy to pay a little bit more.
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 created 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 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.
If you read the whole thing, our poor sound-bitten sentence is in the third paragraph. Looking at the surrounding sentences with the eye of an English teacher who has spent an inordinate amount of time harping on pronoun antecedents: (a) it’s not the best-crafted sentence I’ve ever seen, but (b) the most likely antecedent for “that” is the “roads and bridges” of the previous sentence; this comes out even more clearly if you actually listen to the speech. So what Obama is really saying is that business owners don’t build the infrastructure that helps serve their businesses, NOT that they didn’t build their businesses. You can also see that in the next-to-last paragraph, President Obama does acknowledge the value of personal initiative and effort.
His main point here is that nothing happens in a vacuum. We do build our personal successes on what has been done, attempted, invented before. Look at putting a man on the moon, for instance: this would never have happened without countless contributions from physics, chemistry, biology, astronomy, engineering – from the people who built the rockets and modules, to the people who built the roads to transport materials and personnel to the launch site, to the people who calculated exactly when to launch the rocket, to the people who in whatever capacity (cooks, janitors, housecleaners, gardeners, etc.) maintained a livable environment for the scientists, engineers, and astronauts.
Obama is very right: there are many things that we do better together. As the old man in the fable showed his sons: each stick individually was easy to break, but the sticks collectively were much harder to affect, because they were far stronger as a unit.
All that being said, I do feel that Obama was saying something just as insidious as what many people think he said. Read through his words again. He isn’t saying that a bunch of individual entrepreneurs gave each other some useful assistance; he is saying that government was the driving force behind most, if not all, of the listed accomplishments. Notice that most of his examples involve things that we now see primarily as government-sponsored: education, road and bridge construction, firefighting. Notice that “government research created the Internet” (stretching the facts of the case).
Government should not ever be the driving force behind our accomplishments as a nation and as individuals. Government is a tool. We would not have reached our current level without those individual inventors and business builders who poured their hearts and souls into what they were doing – regardless of what the government had to say about it, often in spite of what the government had to say. Yes, we must work together – but the individual is still paramount in value over the faceless bureaucracy that keeps trying to justify its own existence.