When President Obama told a Virginia crowd last week that "if you've been successful, you didn't get there on your own," he was right. His error was in the insinuation that the "somebody" who "made that happen" was the government. Success does require both "individual initiative" and "working together," as the president said, but that cooperation is to be found in free markets, not government programs.
Cooperation is not part of the market -- it is the market. The market is billions of individuals freely associating, trading, and contracting. In his classic essay "I, Pencil," Leonard Read argues that, "no single person on the face of this earth knows how to make [a pencil]." It is a collaborative effort of millions of people -- loggers, miners, truckers, restaurant owners, even coffee producers. "There isn't a single person in all these millions," Read explains, "including the president of the pencil company, who contributes more than a tiny, infinitesimal bit of know-how."
Both Read and the president downplay the importance of any particular individual, but they do so for opposite reasons: the president so he can justify demanding more from them, Read so he can demonstrate that no single person has the wisdom to direct the economy. The economy requires local actors with knowledge of their unique circumstances, not central planners with grand visions. Whereas markets allow many billions of people to "work together" to achieve their individual plans, government allows a relative few to force their ends on the rest of the population.
President Obama's criticism of markets implies that cooperation is not enough, that he knows better than consumers about how to spend and invest their money. But he has turned economics its head. "[My opponents] think that the economy grows from the top down," he said in the same speech, "their basic theory is, if wealthy investors are doing well then everybody does well." Yet it is his administration that demands top down economic regulation, forcing all Americans to support certain companies.
"I'm not going to see us gut the investments that grow our economy," he said later. But government "investments" -- known as bailouts and subsidies -- are examples not of cooperation, but of cronyism. If he is allowed to bill himself as cooperation's champion, he will steal the free market's moral high ground. That no one becomes successful on their own, that we must work together to flourish, that this "unbelievable American system" is what has permitted success should be a conservative and libertarian refrain.
Responses to the president that fail to affirm that these values are actually capitalist values do the free market movement a disservice. Narrow criticisms that note the tastelessness of the president's implication that government should take credit for business success are valid, but they miss the larger picture -- they never undermine the president's false vision of "working together." Cooperation requires the freedom to choose, and choice requires markets, not mandates and subsidies. In this way, even market competition is really about protecting cooperation, not destroying it.
Market cooperation deserves credit even for those activities which the president believes government made happen. Government produces nothing. It is entirely dependent on the private success of its citizens. Without these successes, no taxation would be available for roads, bridges, teachers, or fire stations. Rather than citing those examples to take more from American businesses, the president should thank businesses for their success, which ultimately funds his agenda.
The president's self-proclaimed values, rather than his conclusions, are what free market advocates have argued for years. Prosperity depends not just on individual initiative, but on cooperation and exchange. Conservatives and libertarians should not concede their values to a president who has led the charge to increase government controls on private collaboration. President Obama is right. Cooperation matters -- maybe he should stop standing in the way.