There is much ado about President Obama’s recent statement “If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that.” The overwrought right is abuzz with angry indignation. How dare he! they shout in unison, aghast that this evil communist could so thoroughly declare war on private enterprise. Let’s take a closer look.
First, it helps to have the entire quote before you:
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.
It’s a bit impolitic, a bit overstated. But how far off is it?
As I said in The War of American Interdependence, there are two cognitive frames in competition here, one which thinks that we are fundamentally, ontologically “individuals,” fundamentally mutually independent, and one which recognizes that we are fundamentally, ontologically members of a society, fundamentally interdependent. We think in languages we didn’t individually invent, using concepts and conceptual tools we didn’t individually invent. Every aspect of our lives implicates and depends on countless others, no matter how much of a rugged individualist one may be: Few frontiersmen built their own firearms, and, if some did, they did not mine the ores that provided the materials for it. And whatever they did, in almost all cases, they learned how to do it from others.
Most of us rely on one another to a far greater extent than that: Most of us don’t grow our own food, or, if we do, we don’t build the tractors and drill for the oil and do myriad other things involved in the enterprise. Most of us don’t make our own clothes, or build our own homes, or make our own tools, or produce our own electronic devises, or, if we do some, we certainly don’t do all. The market isn’t an expression of our mutual independence, but rather a social institutional form which helps deepen and facilitate our fundamental interdependence.
Our laws, as well, are an expression of our interdependence. We forge them in the light of what that interdependence demands of us. The developments of the modern era that led to market economies and popular sovereignty framed by written constitutions with carefully delineated rights and powers are part of the evolution of our interdependence. The concept of “liberty” itself is an expression of our interdependence, of the discovery of both increased vitality and increased humanity achievable by freeing up individual initiative and creativity to as great a degree as possible, while still recognizing and working within the framework of our fundamental interdependence.
Obama was talking about exactly that. It’s not some crazy idea, it’s not even really debatable: It’s a fundamental fact of our existence. We thrive through coordinated efforts and actions, through participation in a society with divisions of labor and mutual reliance on one another. The ideology currently in vogue which attempts to erase that fact from our awareness is pernicious and destructive; it attempts to redefine private wealth as attributable to nothing other than private actions, when that’s simply not true. Ben Franklin, unsurprisingly, got it right: Wealth is as much a function of the laws and markets and other social institutions that we forge together, and of the efforts of countless others channeled through those social institutions, as it is of individual effort, because without the former our own efforts have no framework within which to achieve their ends.
So, no, even in the more exceptional rather than more common instance in which a business is built up without any element of relative privilege (the differential material and social inheritances that we draw at birth) having advantaged the entrepreneur, they are not solely responsible for the creation and success of that business; the myriad other human efforts that it implicitly depended on are as well. And the market does not magically reward all of those efforts in ways which serve the ultimate goal of continuing to create the most robust, fair, and sustainable political economy human genius is capable of.
Those who are adamant that human genius cannot intrude on some imaginary pure and absolute individual “liberty,” that to do so is “social engineering” or “communism,” are rather remarkably ignoring how that individual liberty was legally constructed in the first place. Our own Constitution is an act of “social engineering,” and, in the way that too many now use the word, a “communist” plot. Indeed, the framers had to argue that we needed a government strong enough to facilitate effective collective action in our collective interests, “The Federalist Papers” frequently seeming to forecast the later invention of “game theory” and the recognition of what has since come to be called “collective action problems.” (See Collective Action (and Time Horizon) Problems).
The right claims to rever our Constitution and our Founding Fathers, and yet can’t seem to recognize that both acknowledged our interdependence. Art. I, Section 8, Clause i of the United States Constitution empowers Congress to tax and spend in the general welfare, meaning that “what’s mine” isn’t just mine; the public also has some claim on it. How much of a claim isn’t specified; that’s for us, as the popular sovereign, to determine and redetermine, in the light of growing knowledge and udnerstanding.
And as for the Founding Fathers, their views differed. Jefferson’s and Madison’s are frequently cited, but Ben Franklin’s are generally ignored, even though Franklin alone among them helped to draft and sign every single one of our founding documents and was the undisputed senior American stateman at the birth of this country. Franklin maintained that any private wealth beyond that need to sustain oneself and one’s family “is the property of the public, who by their laws have created it” (Walter Isaacson, “Benjamin Franklin: An American Life,” Page 424, quoting Franklin).
It’s not about denigrating individual effort and initiative, or failing to respect the vital role they play in our shared social existence. I can only speak for myself, but I’ll tell you clearly: I respect and admire individual effort and initiative, and recognize it as absolutely vital to our collective welfare. It’s not about failing to recognize the need to frame our shared social existence in ways that take that into account, and work to liberate rather than stifle such individual effort and initiative: I am adamant that it is imperative that we recognize the importance of that dimension of our shared existence in every public policy debate.
But it is not the ONLY dimension that we need to consider; it is not the ONLY value that we must respect and maximize. Our nation today has the highest gini coefficient (statistical measure of economic inequality) of any developed nation on Earth, and the statistical reality of one’s socioeconomic status at birth predominantly determining throughout life is inescapable (see http://www.americanprogress.org/kf/hertz_mobility_analysis.pdf). This is not only unjust, but also systemically dysfunctional: The two most catastrophic economic collapses of the last 100 years in America were immediately preceded, by a matter of months, by the two highest peaks in the concentration of wealth in America in the last 100 years, in 1929 and 2008, respectively.
Such gross inequality of opportunity and in the distribution of wealth hurts us all, and violates fundamental American values of fairness. It is one of the challenges facing us as nation, that we have to meet and address as a nation. It’s not wrong to remind those who succeed by some combination of individual effort and good fortune, facilitated, in either case, by our entire social production function, that they succeeded by virtue of their membership in this society, and that their success does not come without reciprocal responsibilities to the society that made it possible.
And that was very clearly and explicitly Ben Franklin’s view as well as mine (in fact, his was a stronger statement of it), so if you want to vilify me for daring to recognize that the public has some claim on private wealth, be sure to vilify him as well.