Barack Obama’s recent “Elizabeth Warren Moment” at a speech in Roanoke has been getting plenty of attention, though the focus of much of the criticism seems misplaced. Here’s the full relevant passage:
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. The point is, that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.
As others have noted, it’s not entirely clear what’s being referred to in the “you didn’t build that” line that’s gotten most of the attention: It could mean “the business”—in which case it seems obvious that what he means is “you didn’t build that alone“—or it could equally plausibly mean “this incredible American system” and “roads and bridges” and all the other things that made it possible for that business to be successful.
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. In 15,000 B.C., you’d have been dirt poor however smart and hardworking you were.
Indeed, arguably it doesn’t go far enough, as it suggests some sharp distinction between things that involve help from “somebody else,” on the one hand, and on the other traits like being “so smart” or “hardworking,” which presumably each individual really is responsible for. But as John Rawls would argue, that’s hardly true either: If you’re “so smart,” well, “you didn’t build that,” ultimately. You aren’t responsible for the genetic endowment that enables high-level cognitive processing, the nutrition that fed your developing infant brain, or for the vast store of inherited knowledge that allowed you to take calculus for granted, rather than re-deriving it from scratch (once you’d invented “writing” and “numbers”). If you’re hardworking, then it’s a good thing that your upbringing and education imbued you with a work ethic, and that your brain chemistry (with or without aid from modern pharmaceuticals) is well-calibrated for sustained focus and impulse control.
All that’s true enough, but what is the point supposed to be? That we need to “do things together” to succeed? Well, obviously. But as Aaron Powell and Jason Brennan rightly ask, 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?
Of course, there are solid arguments why certain things we build together—roads, for one—will generally not be adequately supplied unless we do them through government. But as Aaron Powell points out, if we limit ourselves to these kinds of examples, we arguably end up with a pretty libertarian conception of government. Does Obama think he has to make the argument against anarcho-capitalism? I’m all for a more philosophical approach to modern political discourse, but starting from a foundational justification of the state in terms of provision of essential public goods seems to me to be taking it a bit far: Even we minarchist libertarians are already on board with that, and I hadn’t thought the anarchists a significant enough force in the current electoral debate to require an extended refutation. If that’s the justificatory strategy he wants to embrace, of course, I’ll take it—and look forward to the radical reduction in the size and cost of government.
Maybe, however, the point is more along the lines of the Nagel/Murphy “Myth of Ownership” argument: Since you didn’t earn whatever wealth you have all by yourself, without external help, you can’t really claim to deserve or be entitled to it—it’s a matter of luck you’re not one of those smart, hardworking people who didn’t get rich, after all—and so “we” (apparently meaning “the government”) get to take back however much “we” think is appropriate.
But this one proves rather too much doesn’t it? You didn’t assemble your own DNA, or design your own reproductive system—your parents, and before them eons of evolution, built that. If you have religious or beliefs and practices, you didn’t build that—you inherited them from a whole tradition of thought, transmitted through institutions made of other people, in books written by other people, created using printing technology invented by other people. You have views on politics you want to express? You didn’t build those alone either—and you probably even want to do it over a computer network that the government subsidized a very different and primitive early form of decades ago.
As it turns out, we generally think we are entitled to control, or have rights over, a whole lot of things that are not (as Robert Nozick put it) “deserved all the way down” in the sense that we’re completely responsible for them—since, at the end of the day, nothing is “deserved all the way down” in that sense. It’s not that the “you didn’t build that” argument is wrong as a factual matter—it’s that it’s true about everything, and therefore doesn’t get you much of anything.