Mr. Obama, having run with apparent impunity the most lawless administration in the history of the presidency, has now got himself in a spot of bother for . . . speaking without a teleprompter:
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.
Obama’s legion of apologists, after flailing about for a bit, have argued that, notwithstanding its grammatical construction, what he intended by the bolded portion was that individual businesses and their creators do not directly build the infrastructure on which they rely to be successful; rather, this is the fruit of collective effort. This point is, on one reading, trivially true – we aren’t yeoman farmers anymore – but has this really been a contested insight since, I dunno, 1920 maybe?
Among cultural anthropologists, perhaps not. But they have very little say in how a people actually mythologizes itself. America’s dominant economic myth is one of individual achievement, and this mythology has played no small part in our success. Obama is attempting to inspire a counter myth of collectivism, a mythology that gave us . . . well, Soviet Russia, Red China, etc.
I’m quite comfortable having a national myth that doesn’t quite match the facts on the ground, so long as it pulls its weight in utility. If Obama was running neck-and-neck with the Libertarian Party, then it could be plausibly argued that “individualism” might have jumped the shark. But with Romney? These two are arguing over a couple of inches on collectivism’s 40 yard line*.
But that’s not really what bothers me. There are two things that bother me.
First, the flip side of the observation that the potential for private wealth – up and down the economic scale – is made greater by public infrastructure is that public infrastructure also doesn’t spring wholly formed from the mind of government bureaucrats: it relies on some amount of pre-existing private wealth to finance it. whether the “money” representing that wealth is taxed, borrowed (which is deferred taxation), or simply printed (which is a tax of a different sort). Now, with double-digit unemployment, trillion-dollar deficits, and a debt-to-GDP ratio of around one, it’s pretty apparent that Obama is worrying about the wrong side of this relationship.
The second thing that bothers me goes even deeper: Obama’s fundamental dishonesty in his framing. I will happily stipulate that we are none of us as “individual” as we like to think. Never mind infrastructure: we did not even “build” the very DNA from which we draw the intelligence and energy to make something of ourselves. We did not “build” the Anglo-Saxon culture – especially those of us that aren’t Anglo-Saxon – that enables the civic trust and cooperation necessary for enterprise beyond the subsistence level. We did not “build” the discoveries and inventions on whose shoulders we stood to exercise our own creativity. We did not fight the wars that expanded and secured our nation’s territory. We are, in these respects, merely heirs of the hard work and self-discipline of our ancestors. A well-governed country – Japan, say, or Iceland – respects the heritage it has received and seeks to preserve it.
The irony about Obama is that he has spent his rule actively undermining those very conditions. Obama’s immigration policies have flooded the nation with illiterate Mexican peasants, driving down wages, driving down civic trust, and eating away at both the physical and cultural capital on which the nation survives. Obama’s trade policies have flooded the nation with cheap Chinese imports, destroying the high-paying jobs from which taxes can be paid to fund public services. Obama’s foreign policies have frittered away the nation’s blood and treasure on endless undeclared foreign conflicts inimical to our national interest. Obama’s crime policies have exposed its historic majority to a rising tide of predatory black (and brown) criminality while plundering our wealth and opportunity for the benefit of minorities. Obama’s social policies have undermined families and the parental investment that go with them, setting ever greater percentages of the nation morally adrift. Obama’s government policies have had nothing to do with improving public services, and everything to do with gross redistribution of wealth.
In these, Obama may haves merely expanded the policies of his predecessors – but expand them he did. Romney’s claim to succeed Obama may be that he only aspires to be marginally less destructive to the common good than Obama – but he will be less destructive. So I don’t really care about whether this little kerfuffle is some kind of proxy battle over top marginal tax rates or whatever. The Japanese and Icelanders pay much higher taxes than we do – because their productive enough to afford them and receive high-quality public services in return. No, what I do care about is that Obama is lying through his teeth when he talks about the common good of the nation.
UPDATE: Chris already said this better.