During the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama’s slogan was “Yes, we can!” But if you thought that was an inspiring call for individual empowerment, think again. His new message is, “Oh no, you didn’t.”
On Friday, the president laid bare the logic behind his call for higher taxes on the wealthy. “You know, there are a lot of wealthy, successful Americans who agree with me, because they want to give something back,” Obama said in a campaign speech. “They know they didn’t — look, if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own. You didn’t get there on your own.”
“I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart,” Obama continued. (He is apparently not struck by people who think they can centrally plan the economy or wield substantial political power over others because they are just so smart.) “There are a lot of smart people out there.”
Having dismissed the old noggin as a possible explanation of individual success, Obama next started in on hard work. “It must be because I worked harder than everybody else,” he imagined the winners of life’s lottery to believe. “Let me tell you something — there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there.”
Okay, people don’t succeed because of their inherent brain power or hard work. By now the audience must have been sitting on the edge of their seats, wondering how dear leader would explain success. Obama finally obliged: “If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help.”
In one particularly unfortunate line, Obama said, “If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.” Just like he’s going to raise somebody else’s taxes, not yours.
Elizabeth Warren, the Democratic candidate for Senate in Massachusetts, made similar comments a few months back: “There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody.” The speech — which in turn echoes Obama’s comments that the rising debt is due to the Bush tax cuts, wars, and the Medicare prescription drug benefit (policies the current president mostly kept in place) — was wildly popular in progressive circles.
On one level, Obama and Warren are obviously right. No man is an island. People benefit from growing up in strong families or having good teachers. People can be fortunate in the friends and relatives who come into their lives, in the doors of opportunities that open before them. Life isn’t always fair. Sometimes good people have bad luck; the opposite is also true.
Does anybody really dispute this? Even many libertarians understand we are not atomistic individuals but social creatures. As George Constanza once reminded his Seinfeld co-star, “We live in a society, Jerry.” To the extent that we are talking about government, no serious person is advocating the end of military, police or fire protection. We all benefit from not having the country overrun by foreign attackers.
A 35 percent top marginal tax rate and a premium support model for Medicare isn’t the stuff of anarchy. A gradual reduction in the debt-to-GDP ratio over a period of decades isn’t some radical rejection of the social contract.
Yet on another level, the president’s little lesson is self-evidently absurd. Lots of people attend public schools and have teachers. Very few people become Steve Jobs or Bill Gates. Everybody uses the roads and bridges the factory owner uses to bring his products to market. But not everyone builds a factory.
The tax dollars that paid for those roads, bridges, schools, and teachers didn’t just come from “someone else” or the “rest of us.” They came from the innovators, the factory owners, and the entrepreneurs too. In 2009, the top 400 taxpayers paid almost as much in federal income taxes as the entire bottom 50 percent combined.
The jobs created and the wages paid by those business owners fueled a lot of the tax payments made by “someone else” and the “rest of us.” The taxes imposed on those business owners could help entice them to ship jobs overseas.
Barney Frank is often quoted as saying, “Government is simply the name we give to the things we choose to do together.” But we do lots of things together apart from government, in families and communities, churches and synagogues, private associations and what Edmund Burke called the “little platoons” of civil society.
The market itself is something we do together. Pace Obama, the market found uses for the Internet that far exceeded anything anticipated by the early government designers. Beyond Al Gore’s wildest dreams, is the inconvenient truth. And when the government acts outside of its constitutionally enumerated powers, it may be doing things that none of us freely chose to do together.
Just because government built the Hoover Dam doesn’t mean we should celebrate when government blocks the Keystone Pipeline. Just because tax revenues support valuable infrastructure and public safety doesn’t mean excessive tax rates can’t kill jobs.
By all means, thank your mother or father, a teacher or soldier, a friend or supportive group for contributing to your success. Thank even your lucky stars, if you don’t want to cling bitterly to religion and thank Someone Else. But don’t belittle personal achievement.
“The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together,” Obama conceded. When the president says, “Yes, we can,” it may be worthwhile to ask: “What do you mean ‘we,’ kemosabe?”