Barack Obama stepped in it with his “you didn’t build that” speech, the subject of my column last week. But now people are claiming that he was taken out of context.
One popular reinterpretation is that when Obama says “you didn’t build that” he is not referring to the small business he just talked about but the roads and bridges mentioned in the previous sentence. Far from being the obvious antecedent his supporters insist it is, this version would require him to misspeak. But it was the spoken word, not a carefully finished piece of writing. And it isn’t quite as absurd as entrepreneurship trutherism.
The first problem with this is that it remains an unpersuasive argument. Small business owners pay taxes that help build the roads and bridges just like everyone else. And while everyone benefits from the roads and bridges, not everyone builds small businesses.
The second, larger problem is that there is the rest of the speech. Obama says that if you are wealthy, you didn’t get there on your own. You didn’t get there by smarts. You didn’t get there by hard work. You got there because of a surrounding community and, above all, a government that needs to be financed by a higher top marginal tax rate.
As I wrote last week, there is an extent to which all of these statements except for the income tax bit are partially true. No man is an island, communities matter, and yes even government has a role. Some people are lucky, others are unlucky. But none of this really justifies downplaying the role individual merit and effort play in personal success. Nor does any of this have any bearing on whether the top tax rate is 35 percent or 39.6 percent.
Elizabeth Warren gave essentially the same speech arguing that nobody got rich in America on their own. They had help from the roads and the bridges the “rest of us” paid for. Her remarks went viral in the progressive blogosphere. I had a college philosophy professor who argued that the concept of the self-made man was a right-wing myth, because we are all part of a broader community.
Look, Obama probably didn’t mean to say that people didn’t build their small businesses, at least that straightforwardly. But his remarks did portray a mindset about the American dream that is to the left of Bill Clinton’s vision of people who “work hard and play by the rules,” and one that is likely to strike most voters as peculiar. The only way to say the line was taken out of context is to actually ignore the context of the rest of the speech.
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