"You Didn't Build That" Remarks Spark Policy Debate
Posted at 8:15 a.m. on July 23, 2012
Recent remarks by President Obama have sparked a policy debate over government’s role in providing the space for business.
President Obama’s comments: “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, that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.”
Julian Sanchez: “Either way, it seems undeniable as a self-contained descriptive point: No man is an island, and the wealth and success we enjoy are all profoundly dependent on a context of social cooperation that makes it possible… but what is the point supposed to be? That we need to “do things together” to succeed? Well, obviously… why should we assume that “we” and “together” has to mean “through government”? Why can’t “we” do things “together” by… well, forming businesses? Clubs? Civic organizations? Churches? If we’re assigning credit for past achievements—and implicitly, the debt we owe for them—why the federal government and not, say, our fellow citizens directly, or state and municipal authorities, or the whole of humanity engaged in mutually enriching global trade?”
Ryan Avent: “Within this system, smarts and initiative are hugely important and deserve to be rewarded (the system only works when they are rewarded), but this system rests on a societal consensus that this particular method of resource allocation is efficient and fair. Rich businessmen didn’t build their businesses alone. They built their businesses only because the public agreed that letting them build their businesses and get rich in the process was a good way to do things. The public has the right to change its mind; that’s how democracy works… To me, this is the nature of the strain on the system at present. It’s not that incomes at the top are soaring while those at the middle have been stagnant for several decades. It’s that those at the top seem, for the most part, to have abandoned any sense of responsibility for maintaining public support in the system that enriches them.”
Mike Konczal builds a policy agenda around the comments: “The first step is what President Obama was calling for in the speech, which is progressive taxation… Another would be emphasizing that public goods are actually that: publically provided and shared… Continuing the inter-generational pact of the welfare state is another part.”