Obama’s You didn’t build that” speech has deservedly stirred up a lot of anger. His suggestion that people don’t deserve credit for their own achievements didn’t go down well, but it’s a restatement of a very old theme. Pride is one of the Seven Deadly Sins.
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 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.
On one level this is saying the obvious. We don’t live on desert islands, and we benefit from each other’s actions. “What makes one step a giant leap is all the steps before.” But the thrust of his remarks is that “you,” the person addressed, don’t deserve the credit. An unnamed “somebody” does. Who deserves credit for the Internet? Not the many brilliant programmers and designers who worked on it, the people who created its many components, or the people whose taxes paid for ARPA, but the government. My writing code, fixing bugs, and dealing with website emergencies is merely “making money off it.” Not engaging in productive effort is the requirement for being given credit.
He cites roads and bridges, which are normally government projects, but not producers of materials, designers, managers, or the many other people who trade productive effort for what others produce. He doesn’t even offer credit to the manual laborers who are so beloved of the left.
People who know that they’ve earned what they have aren’t easy to push around. That’s what Obama doesn’t like. He wants to foster a feeling of dependency, of the idea that you have to “give something back,” as if creators merely take and don’t offer anything of value.
It’s a very old idea, doubtless owing a lot to the fact that so many people through history have gotten rich by force rather than productivity. The term “robber baron” comes from people who committed literal robbery to gain the wealth they thought they were entitled to. Even today there are a lot of people who get money by lobbying for barriers to entry, taking advantage of a broken patent system, bribing politicians for favors, and the like. Sometimes it’s hard to distinguish the producers from the parasites. But those who succeeded honestly deserve full credit for what they’ve built. The parasites in high office who try to grab the credit deserve none.
Related: “The Bad History Behind ’You Didn’t Build That’” by Virginia Postrel.