Who Makes What Happen?

The following statement by Barack Obama is currently making the rounds on Facebook (and on the Internet in general):

If you’ve got a business – you didn’t build that – somebody else made that happen.

OK, say you have got a business, and you have built it up from scratch. Your business needs customers, otherwise you will go out of business. Does this mean your business was built by your customers?

OK, perhaps you did not build your business from scratch; it is a family business that you inherited. Somebody else made it happen, namely your father or grandfather or great-great grandfather.

A book needs readers; a painting needs viewers; a piece of music needs listeners. That does not mean the readers built the book, the viewers the painting, or the listeners the music.

But maybe I am quoting Obama out of context here? So let me give some more extensive quotes:

There are a lot of wealthy, successful Americans who agree with me [that the wealthy should pay more in taxes], 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.

Yes, there are people – even successful capitalists like Warren Buffett – who are mired in the Marxist exploitation theory, who believe their success and their wealth have come at the expense of other people, and that they therefore have a “duty” to “give back” to society. (On this issue I will refer you to George Reisman’s excellent Open Letter to Warren Buffett on the Subject of Class Warfare.)

And yes: “other people” is an important element of life. “Other people” can be of great help. The customers who buy your products (the readers who read your books, etc.) certainly help you succeed in your business. But that certainly does not mean that your customers made your business happen – you did. And your success is yours: if you turned out worthless products, no customer would help you succeed. If you succeed, you deserve every penny you earn. (Hank Rearden said this in Atlas Shrugged.)

Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive.

The unbelievable American system was created by the Founding Fathers! And they built on Enlightenment thinkers like John Locke. What has Barack Obama done except undermining the Founding Father’s achievement? (True, he is not alone in this. The vision of the Founding Fathers has been steadily eroding over the centuries.)

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.

Somebody has to invest in infrastructure like roads and bridges – but does it have to be the government that invests with money taken from the rest of us? I don’t think so; but this is a vast subject that I cannot go into now. But what about this idea that government created the Internet?

It is true that the Internet originally grew out of the ARPA net and was created by the US Department of Defense. But the ARPA net was immensely crude compared to today’s Internet. And every step taken since then have been taken by private, non-government initiative. Think of IBM, Microsoft, Apple, etc. etc. If it had stayed in the hands of government, nothing much would have happened.

Take another example. This blog is powered by WordPress. Does this mean that WordPress is creating this blog? Certainly not: I create it. WordPress has created the precondition without which I could not create this blog. (And WordPress certainly was not created by the government, even though the ARPA net is also a precondition for the existence of WordPress.)

The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.

Oh yes. This is the kernel of truth around which this web of lies is weaved.

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.

This does not mean fire fighting could not be privatized. That something has to be organized does not mean the organizing has to be done by the government.

So we say to ourselves, ever since the founding of this country, you know what, there are some things we do better together.

The same kernel of truth as above. There is nothing wrong in cooperation. But we do not want to be one neck ready for one leash:

Remember the Roman Emperor who said he wished humanity had a single neck so he could cut it ? People have laughed at him for centuries. But we’ll have the last laugh. We’ve accomplished what he couldn’t accomplish. We’ve taught men to unite. This makes one neck ready for one leash. We found the magic word. Collectivism. – Ellsworth Toohey in The Fountainhead.

But Obama should have the last word:

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.

One neck ready for the one leash.

(The Obama quotes I have taken from here.)

PS. Others have written about this as well. I particularly recommend this article by Michael Hurd. There is also a short guest post by Jeffrey Tucker on Peter Creswell’s blog. (If you read Swedish, also read what Per Nilsson-Menger has to say.)

Update July 22: I also recommend Robert Tracinski’s latest article on RealClearMarkets, King Barack I vs. the American Gospel of Success. (I often recommend Tracinski; he is a very astute observer of the political scene.)

Also, several persons have observed the similarity between Obama’s statement and this diatribe by James Taggart in Atlas Shrugged:

He [Hank Rearden] didn’t invent iron ore and blast furnaces, did he? He didn’t invent smelting and chemistry and air compression. He couldn’t have invented his Metal but for thousands and thousands of other people. His Metal! Why does he think it’s his? Why does he think it’s his invention? Everybody uses the work of everybody else. Nobody ever invents anything.

Update August 2: There is another good article on Pajamas Media by Oleg Atbashian (a new name to me). He points out that

…if all of us can be credited for someone else’s achievement, by the same logic, all of us can be punished for someone else’s failure. Just as all individual credit goes to the society as a whole, so does all the blame.


…if nothing is to your credit, then nothing is your fault.

And ends up with the following version of Obama’s speech:

If you have failed, somebody along the line ruined it for you. There was a lousy teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unfair American system that caused you to fail. Somebody benefited from your demise. If you’re a loser, it’s not your fault. Somebody else made that happen. The Titanic didn’t sink on its own. Corporations and insurance companies made a lot of money off of it, so they must be complicit. The point is, when we fail, we fail not only because of our individual shortcomings, but also because others have teamed up behind your backs.

Read the whole article.


4 Responses to Who Makes What Happen?

  1. Hugo Heden says:

    Sorry to be totally off topic – I’m looking for a piece you wrote critizising Marx’ view that “M -> C-> C’ -> M’ “. You argue (if I recall correctly) that the correct view is indeed “C -> M -> M’ -> C’ “.

    Does this sound familiar? Where can I find that piece of yours? (If it is in Swedish that’s OK, that is my modersmål.)

    Again, sorry to be off-topic. Please feel free to delete etc.

  2. JeffreyH says:

    This thought process of the president can be traced back to the main critic of the Enlightenment, namely Rousseau. Rousseau argued for a social contract in response to the enlightenment thinkers and their social contracts. Rousseau argued that property is all owned by the government and the citizen is the temporary steward of property. Rousseau’s social contract is at the core of the radicalization of the French Revolution and it reign of terror ( when many of the supporters of Locke and Voltaire lost their heads) This is in direct opposition to Locke’s Social Contract in which the role of the government is to protect the property of the citizens and their ability to create wealth. Rousseau view is clearly reactionary to before the enlightenment where you owed your life and work to the king, lord, bishop or other political entity that you were tied to by birth. All revolutions based on Rousseau’s ideas involve the government making the world better for the citizen by force of the gun, with the use of rhetoric of crisis, fear and envy. In the end, be it in France, Germany, Russia, China, or Cambodia, the eggs are broken via summary execution of the dissenters.

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