You Own a Business? “You Didn’t Build That,” Says Obama

If there’s a starker statement of philosophy —
repulsive, Borg-like philosophy — than that offered up by President
Barack Obama during a
stump speech
on July 13, in Roanoke, Virginia, I have yet to
see it. Basically, in the course of the usual round of
chest-beating and opponent-slagging, Obama ridiculed the idea that
individuals can claim credit for their successes, and instead
touted collective effort — with the government taking the lead, of
course. As you might expect of a politician more concerned with
reelection than accuracy, his chosen examples weren’t as supportive
of his case as his speechwriters intended.

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.  (Applause.)

     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.

That “fire service” reference comes courtesy of Obama’s
speechifying outside a Roanoke fire station, I’m sure that the idea
of a non-government fire department seemed ridiculous to whoever
crafted that speech, but a few minutes with Google might have saved
the president the embarrassment of using such an inappropriate
example. I don’t know about Roanoke, but the last time I was in
Annapolis, Maryland, the walls of buildings in the old part of town
still bore 19th century
metal badges
indicating the fire service that protected that
property. For about 150 years, in continental Europe, Britain and
the United States, such badges commonly indicated specific fire
companies, or the insurance companies that would compensate
responding volunteer fire brigades. The system had flaws, as does
any, but not to the extent that was claimed when clever politicians
turned fire protection into a “modern” government service — and,
along with police departments, later joined by other municipal
rich sources of lucrative patronage jobs

As for the Internet … Are we still humoring people who pretend
that the modern Internet, with multimedia browsers, world-spanning
commercial opportunities and unparallelled opportunities for free
expression is a triumph of government planning? Government might
have created standards for connecting computers from different
organizations, but, as Robert David Graham of Errata Security


What’s important about the Internet is that the OSI standard
failed. It’s not the standard of today’s Internet. The government
backed the wrong horse, so to speak. Instead, today’s
Internet is based on TCP/IP — a networking standard the government
tried to kill off

Most people concede that government played a major role, but as
a participant in something that was happening anyway. Some
commenters, such as Peter G. Klein, argue that the government’s early
involvement pushed the evolution of the technology behind the
Internet in unfortunate directions. What’s clear, though, is that
what we value about the Internet, such as streaming video, vast
quantities of free porn, easy shopping, sharing of data and the
like are private developments by innovators and entrepreneurs.

True, it could be said to any of the entrepreneurs who built
innovation upon innovation, “you didn’t get there on your own.” But
that could be said of anybody who wasn’t raised by wolves, though
even then, the wild doggies deserve their due. That’s because
healthy societies are the result of voluntary, collaborative
efforts that build on what has already been developed. People
enrich themselves and others by cutting deals with others or by
picking up the baton from those who have gone before — that doesn’t
entail some formless, endless obligation to the collective,
embodied, of course, by the nearest politicians with their hands

“You’re not on your own, we’re in this together,” says Obama.
Well … Sort of. We all work at things that complement each other,
simply because we won’t get rewarded if nobody has any need for
what we’re doing. To the extent that government officials manage to
properly perform jobs involving the maintenance of infrastructure
that other people use while keeping the bridges to nowhere to a
minimum … That’s great! They paved the roads without screwing up!
But they get paid for that, just like the phone company and the gas
company, and Sprint doesn’t constantly insist we kiss its
executives’ asses because our phones work from day to day.

There’s something deeply disturbing in the world-view of those
who would minimize the achievements of those who pursued the ideas,
took the risks, invested the time and money and made things happen.
And it’s no more encouraging to hear such people claim individual
achievements as the property of the amorphous collective led,
always, by themselves. The only value in such pronouncements is the
warning they offer to those of us who seek something with a bit
more promise for anybody with a hint of self-respect and a whisper
of inspiration.