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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 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.

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I recently posted on three of my Facebook pages (my personal page:; my Colorado Confluence page:; and my Politics of Reason, Humility, and Goodwill page: the following:

For those on the far-right who like to claim that “the founding fathers” all meant for this country to be as they envision it, here’s an interesting passage from Walter Isaacson’s biography of Ben Franklin (page 315): “Another…proposal Franklin made to the Pennsylvania convention (in 1776) was that the state’s Declaration of Rights discourage large holdings of property or concentrations of wealth as ‘a danger to the happiness of mankind.'” What vitriol our modern faux-patriots would heap on Franklin, one of the most revered among those same “founding fathers” in their own day, were he alive to participate in political discourse today!

My point was less to promote Franklin’s specific position than to promote the notion that the “founding fathers” had amongst them a broader range of ideas than is sometimes supposed, and that we should honor them not by constricting our discourse to a false presumption of what “they” thought, but rather should honor them by discussing a range as broad as they did. Franklin was by far the most revered generally, and amongst the “founding fathers” themselves, in their own day (until Washington won the War of Independence, and knocked Franklin down to the second most revered), and that he had proposed an idea that would be denounced by the members of a particularly virulent right-wing ideology today that claims to be most in sinc with the “intent” of “the founding fathers” speaks volumes about how constricted our national discourse has become.

The guilt for this ideological narrowing of our national mind doesn’t belong to the right alone; the left has its own sacred cows, its own ideological false certainties that are insulated from reason and evidence and further examination. But I do not find that left-wing corpus of false ideology to form the major thrust of our national collective consciousness, and certainly not its most counter-factual and counter-rational elements.

Though many on the right decry the “creeping socialism” of American domestic policy, the large administrative state along with its regulatory and redistributive functions, its public investments in public programs, is not the result so much of left-wing ideology as of pragmatic problem solving over a period of generations. It was, in fact, the broadening of the American mind through lived history, through trial and error, through the organic processes of social institutional growth and deepening in response to the challenges of shared life.

The principle force in the narrowing of the American mind is on the right, tightly constrained within a set of very narrow and inflexible assumptions largely divorced from historical, economic, legal, or, in general, social systemic evidence, analysis and lived experience. This set of ideological shackles takes several forms: 1) a false and ideologically convenient reduction of the Constitution to “the confirmation of everything we believe whether that’s what the Constitution actually says or not,” 2) an “economically illiterate and disgracefully cynical” (in the words of The Economist magazine) political agenda, and 3) an uncompromising fanaticism, served by a simultaneous rejection of scholarship and hollow pretense to be supported by it, to name a few.

On many right-wing sites and pages, a rational argument (if presented by an infiltrator such as myself) simply can’t be followed, in an almost Keystone-coppish spoof of discourse, a political ideological rendition of “who’s on first?” Amidst the bizarre barrage of school-yard taunts and infantile pejoratives, simultaneous defenses and indignant denials of implicitly racist or quasi-racist attitudes, can be found an underlying thread of pure, unadulterated, unexamined irrationality and ignorance. Reason is not only rejected, but reduced to the status of undifferentiated subjective opinion, “your reason,” as if logical argumentation applied to reliable evidence is no more reliable than random bigotries, just one more set of arbitrary opinions among many, and not the one to their liking.

Overly aggressive right-wingers insist that George Zimmerman should never have been arrested because he, the armed pursuer and fatal shooter of an unarmed teen engaged in no illegal behavior at the time the pursuit began, was merely defending himself and his property, while the unarmed victim of the shooting, reaccting to being pursued struck out at Zimmerman, was not.

On one anti-immigrant site, arguments included the notion that since some illegal immigrants commit predatory crimes, not being more aggressive in the enforcement of immigration laws is an insult to the victims of such crimes. When I pointed out that this is precisely the same logic used to support overtly racist beliefs, by holding an entire race or ethnicity accountable for the real or imagined crimes of any of its members (a tactic that can be used to impugn any large group or race or ethnicity, since as a matter of statistical probability there will certainly be crimes committed by some members of any such group), the reaction was, of course, a string of dismissive and highly inappropriate pejoratives, and an insistence that their views can’t possibly bear any resemblance to racism, because they are indiscriminate in their hatred of illegal immigrants. They just couldn’t grasp the concept of categorical prejudice having broader applicability than its “racist” incarnation (leaving aside the issue of whether there isn’t, really, a specifically racist element to their antagonism), but were relentlessly bellicose and belligerent in their inability to do so (uttering such apparently timeless gems as “retard,” “idiot,” and, yes, “illegal lover,” the last while denying any similarity in form to racism…!).

There are, of course, the homophobes, the Islamophobes, and the various other incarnations of the “us v. them” mentality, full of hypocrisy and inconsistency. These are people who claim to be the ultimate defenders of the Constitution while simultaneously insisting that to allow Muslims the same First Amendment freedom of religion rights accorded everyone else would be a travesty against our nation.  (One of their arguments is that Islam isn’t a religion, but rather a plot for world conquest.) These are the people who complain about an overly intrusive government who simultaneously insist that government must discriminate against people on the basis of private sexual orientation. It’s a paranoid and bellicose attitude toward the world.

The Obama-haters form a cross-section all their own, frequently overlapping with other variations, but a distinguishable sub-set in its own right. Whether one supports or opposes President Obama’s policies is not the defining distinction here: It is certainly possible to oppose those policies without belonging to this particular variation of this particular cultural pathology. But, for many, hating Obama is a religion, and the justifications highly exaggerated or fabricated, and imbued with a seething hostility. Some justify this by the similar dislike by many on the left of the previous president, George W. Bush, though I find it hard to equate outrage at a president who treated the world as our enemy (and did so in eager defiance of international law and human rights) with a president who merely tries to use government to meet the needs of the most needy among us. (Indeed, treating the world as our enemy is precisely one component of this right-wing mania, while meeting the needs of the most needy among us is precisely what they most vehemently oppose.)

Irrational bigotry, anti-intellectual dogma, unreflective and fully insulated false certainties, are the fabric of this ideology. But it is not just another cult, another little outgrowth of that ever-present but rarely dominant mindset found among religious fanatics and overzealous ideologues. It is a coalescence, a mutation of both of those categories merging into one, an overzealous ideology for religious fanatics; a religious fanaticism for overzealous ideologues. And, like an astronomical phenomenon with a growing gravitational field, more and more of right-wing American society has been sucked into its vortex, from fundamentalist religious fanatics, to grease-painted anti-government lunatics, to all varieties of xenophobes and hostility-driven personality types (though, again, to be fair, one far smaller and less threatening nest of hostility-driven ideologues is still thriving on the left as well).

Of course, as with all of the most virulent, anti-humane movements of world history, it is staunchly anti-intellectual. It has branches that reject some major and not particularly scientifically contentious scientific theories such as Evolution and Global Warming. It has branches that dismiss modern economics and want to replace it with a dogma derived from the work of a century old non-empirical Austrian economist instead. The complex and sophisticated accumulated knowledge of our civilization is considered irrelevant to this faction, because only that which supports the preferred predetermined conclusion is admissible.

It belongs to the class of ideologies and movements that includes the Inquisition, Bolshevism, Nazism, the Khmer Rouge, the Ku Klux Klan, and McCarthyism. Some aspects of it are directly descended from the same lineage of national ideologies that opposed the ratification of the Constitution, defended slavery and opposed abolition, and defended Jim Crow and opposed Civil Rights. It is in many ways milder than these predecessors and cousins, but more insidious for being so.

It isn’t just that these rather unsavory political attitudes and emotional dispositions form one major faction within our society, but rather that they have been (and may or may not still be) growing in influence while simultaneously insulating themselves from any intrusion of fact, reason, or human decency. In the 1970s, we saw TV’s Archie Bunker (wonderfully portrayed by the very talented Carrol O’Connor) as a relic of a soon-to-be transcended past, the bigot so archaic and comical that it was not a matter of great concern. But Archie Bunker was both less virulent and more marginal in his day than our neo-Archie-Bunkers are today, whose bigotry is more insidious and sublimated, and whose numbers, perhaps, are waxing rather than waning.

I am always a bit skeptical of any claims of exceptionalism, whether American exceptionalism, or the constantly repeated and rarely accurate belief in some exceptional aspect of one’s own time and place. My own version of it, voiced here, needs to be taken with a grain of salt as well: Bigots have plagued every generation. Their numbers and influence have often been greater than they are today, and their actions more violent and predatory.

What is exceptional about the present version, what worries me about it in a way that the past incarnations might not have, is that it is a mutation of that attitude and orientation that makes both its possessors and a far larger number of potential new recruits more easily taken in. It is a version that denounces racism while preaching it, that appeals to the baser nature of human beings while providing what to those so inclined is a credible cloak of respectability.

And it is a vibrant and robust current historical trend that stands in stark opposition to the deepening and broadening of human consciousness in service to humanity. When those among us who are hopeful and humane, who would rather see us become more rather than less wise and compassionate as a people, look at this trend, we see the antithesis of the future we know in our hearts is both possible and perhaps inevitable. We see Scrooge before the transformation multiplying and growing more intransigent, and Marley’s Ghost and the Three Spirits safely locked away. We see the perhaps momentary, perhaps more enduring, victory of malice and avarice and ignorance and irrationality.

The narrowing of the American mind may not be exceptional, but it is legitimate cause for concern. And those among us who favor the blossoming of human consciousness instead need to think long and hard about how to confront it, and work long and hard and smartly doing so.

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