The Obama Watch

It Takes a Government

Some political gaffes have a life of 24 hours. Others last a lifetime.

By 8.7.12

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Obama's "you didn't build that" continues to resonate -- far more than a political gaffe. There is a reason: the implications are far bigger than his attempt to discredit the successful. He didn't simply go from "it takes a village" to "it takes a government." His statement challenges the fundamental relationship between America and its government.

In his recent Roanoke, VA, remarks, Obama attempted to unmake the ideal of the self-made man: "…[L]ook, if you've been successful, you didn't get there on your own…. If you've got a business -- you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen." He overshot. In an effort to exalt the government, he not only denigrated the individual, he inverted America's historical view of their relationship.

Many liberals may think this, but few -- even in their most unguarded moments -- would dare say it publicly. Over our nation's two-plus centuries, we have so exalted the independent pioneer spirit that it is virtually synonymous with being an American. We as a people are imbued with that sense, even if some do not share in the sentiment.

Savvy politicians of all stripes know this, and at the very least pay lipservice to it. Still, Obama said it.

The logic of Obama's words is as refutable as his public utterance is inexplicable. If the government's spending was the catalyst for innovation, then why are we not all Steve Jobs? Why did so many of America's greatest inventors appear prior to America's biggest government?

Logically if, as Obama says, we all share in a boost from the government, then that boost really cannot be the determinative element in the innovation equation -- precisely because we all share in it. Instead, it is a constant on both sides of the equation -- success and failure alike. The catalyst therefore must lie elsewhere.

Why is it so difficult for liberals to accept that it must lie in the truly and obviously unique element in the innovation equation: The individual?

The answer is: Because liberals embrace a state-centered approach. The independent individual in general, and the successful individual in particular, are challenges to liberals' state-centered, we-know-best mentality. If the individual can succeed on his own, this diminishes his need for the state. And without a dependence on the state, the individual has little need for the liberals who espouse it. It was no accident that they embraced "it takes a village" to raise a child years ago, and it is no accident that they want to reduce the individual element when it comes to accomplishment now.

Nobel economist Friedrich Hayek said: "It is one of the great tragedies of our time that the masses have come to believe that that they have reached their high standard of material welfare as a result of having pulled down the wealthy, and to fear that the preservation or emergence of such a class would deprive them of something they would otherwise get and which they regard as their due."

A tragedy, yes; an accident, no. The liberal chooses the state over the individual. Liberals may generally not make that choice as explicitly as Obama's words imply, but when state and individual conflict, the former wins.

The implications of Obama's assertion, like the choice itself, are enormous. By denying the individual's ownership of the accomplishment, it is easy to deny the individual's ownership of accomplishment's rewards. If the government is truly responsible, then isn't it entitled?

Following the liberal line of thought, the answer must be "yes." This then is far more than misspeaking, it is mis-thinking. Placing government and individual on an equal basis, is to undermine our founders' intention for our government and overturn the conception we as a nation have had for it ever since.

Early in his Roanoke remarks, Obama uttered some additional unintentionally candid insights: "In some ways, the stakes are even bigger now than they were in 2008, because what's at stake is not just two people or two political parties. What's at stake is a decision between two fundamentally different views about where we take this country right now."

Obama is right. It is a choice between the state and the individual. A choice between where we believe our best hope for progress lies. And a choice about where our values lie.

It is a fundamental choice and one our nation has faced since its beginning. When America's founders drafted our Constitution, their decision was to ensure maximum freedom for the individual by placing strict limits on the government. In contrast, today's liberals seeking to enhance freedom for government action must place limits on the individual. As Obama himself pointed out: "And the choice is up to you."

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About the Author

J.T. Young served in the Department of Treasury and the Office of Management and Budget from 2001 to 2004 and as a Congressional staff member from 1987 to 2000.