King Barack I vs. the American Gospel of Success
Last Friday, President Obama told a campaign audience, in now-infamous words, "If you've been successful, you didn't get there on your own.... 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."
This was immediately recognized as a classic statement of anti-individualism. By now you have probably seen and heard many variations of incredulous outrage at the idea that Obama would tell entrepreneurs, inventors, small businessmen, and pretty much anyone who has achieved anything, that "you didn't built that." (Start here for a sampling.) James Taranto even observed that Obama is beginning to sound like an Ayn Rand villain; more on that in a moment. But it's even worse. If you believe his defenders, President Obama is rehearsing the argument made against the American Revolution by King George III.
The president's defenders have rushed to say that the statement was taken out of context, that Obama didn't mean to say that entrepreneurs didn't build their own businesses, but simply that they didn't build the roads and bridges, or "this unbelievable American system."
Let us grant, for the moment, that this is true, that Obama meant to refer only to roads and bridges. The category of "transportation infrastructure" is 3% of the federal budget and well under 1% of GDP. To fund that, we don't need a top income tax rate of nearly 40%--which is what Obama was trying to justify. In fact, for infrastructure alone, we don't need any federal income tax at all, as witnessed by all of the roads, bridges, canals, and ports built in the century and a half before the passage of the 16th Amendment.
Moreover, in this country's first 50 years, as restless pioneers were civilizing an entire continent of wilderness, the federal government spent no money at all on such "internal improvements." While traveling in America in 1832, Alexis de Tocqueville struck up a conversation with a distinguished former congressman and asked him specifically about America's roads. The congressman replied:
"It's a great constitutional question whether Congress has the right to make anything but military roads. Personally, I am convinced that the right exists; there being disagreement, however, practically no use, one might say, is made of it. It's the states that often undertake to open and keep up the roads traversing them. Most frequently these roads are at the expense of the counties."
This may all seem ancient history, but Tocqueville recognized that this had a profound impact on the American character and its emphasis on individual initiative. The American, he wrote, "trusts fearlessly in his own powers, which seem to him sufficient for everything."
"Suppose that an individual thinks of some enterprise, and that enterprise has a direct bearing on the welfare of society; it does not come into his head to appeal to public authority for its help. He publishes his plan, offers to carry it out, summons other individuals to aid his efforts, and personally struggles against all obstacles."
I believe at one point Tocqueville specifically mentions the example of roads, describing how a man who notices a street in need of repair will summon the other merchants on the street, form a kind of spontaneous town council, raise money for the repair, and make it--all before a central government official would even be able to notice the problem.
Tocqueville was studying America chiefly for the benefit of his own country, France, and there he noticed the opposite impact of a large, all-powerful centralized government.
"There are countries in Europe where the inhabitant feels like some sort of farm laborer indifferent to the fate of the place where he dwells.... The condition of his village, the policing of his road, and the repair of his church and parsonage do not concern him; he thinks that all of those things have nothing to do with him at all, but belong to a powerful stranger called the government."
Here were people who took seriously the idea that they didn't build that and somebody else made it happen.
Tocqueville regarded this difference as essential, not just to America's economic life, but to its political system. It is what makes us free. Yet Obama has just announced the exact opposite principle. In his view, the state is the central actor in society, and precisely as Tocqueville warned, "it monopolizes all activity and life to such an extent that all around it must languish when it languishes, sleep when it sleeps, and perish if it dies."
I quote Tocqueville at such length, partly because he was a brilliant observer of the American character, but mostly to remind us that this attitude of self-reliance has been deeply embedded in the American character from the very beginning--and to show what an astonishing admission Obama made in openly announcing his contempt for this distinctive American creed.
In fact, Obama's argument is essentially the same as the one offered by King George III in defense of the taxes he wanted to impose on the American colonists. The British Crown, he argued, had provided for the settlement of the colonies through royal grants and charters, and it had defended the colonies with its military might in the Seven Years' War. In effect, George III told the colonists: You didn't build that. Somebody else made it happen. Therefore, he concluded, the Americans had an obligation to give back, and he had a right to impose on us any tax he and his parliament saw fit.
In response, Thomas Jefferson wrote the 1774 pamphlet A Summary View of the Rights of British America. This is the work that brought a young Jefferson to prominence, and it previewed many of the arguments he would make two years later in the Declaration of Independence. In the Summary View, Jefferson specifically addressed the king's argument and argued, in effect, that the colonists did build that and that no one else made it happen.
"America was conquered, and her settlements made, and firmly established, at the expense of individuals, and not of the British public. Their own blood was spilt in acquiring lands for their settlement, their own fortunes expended in making that settlement effectual; for themselves they fought, for themselves they conquered, and for themselves alone they have right to hold."
You may recall that Mr. Jefferson was a leader of his own era's Tea Party movement.
The American spirit has not fundamentally changed since the days of Jefferson or Tocqueville, but what has changed is the importation of a collectivist ideology that is hostile to that spirit, which serves to give a brazen intellectual confidence to the kind of louts and malingerers who resent the achievements of others. In Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand paid homage to the America spirit--and she gave us an unsparing portrait of the whining of these resentful collectivist souls.
The comparison already going around the Internet casts Obama in the role of the novel's villain, James Taggart, whose diatribe against the industrial genius Hank Rearden may sound familiar.
"He didn't invent iron ore and blast furnaces, did he? He didn't invent smelting and chemistry and air compression. He couldn't have invented his Metal but for thousands and thousands of other people. His Metal! Why does he think it's his? Why does he think it's his invention? Everybody uses the work of everybody else. Nobody ever invents anything."
Or consider this, from Rearden's spoiled and resentful younger brother Philip.
"He didn't dig that ore single-handed, did he? He had to employ hundreds of workers. They did it. Why does he think he's so good?"
I hope no one will tell me that Ayn Rand's novels are unrealistic or that her villains are caricatures--not when their dialogue is being echoed, in real life, by the president of the United States.
All of this provides a huge opportunity for Romney to fight back against Obama over the coming weeks and months. It offers him a campaign theme that integrates his own personal life and biography with the current economic state of the nation and with the deepest, most profound philosophical choice we face.
If you had asked me a year ago whether Romney was the man for this fight, I would have said "no." Yet he has risen to the occasion. On Tuesday, he offered this devastating rejoinder to Obama.
"The idea to say that Steve Jobs didn't build Apple, that Henry Ford didn't build Ford Motor, that Papa John didn't build Papa John Pizza, that Ray Kroc didn't build McDonald's, that Bill Gates didn't build Microsoft, you go down the list, that Joe and his colleagues didn't build this enterprise, to say something like that is not just foolishness, it is insulting to every entrepreneur, every innovator in America and it's wrong.
"And by the way, the president's logic doesn't just extend to the entrepreneurs that start a barber shop or a taxi operation or an oil field service business like this..., it also extends to everybody in America that wants to lift themself up a little further.... People who reach to try and lift themself up. The President would say, well you didn't do that.... President Obama attacks success and therefore under President Obama we have less success, and I will change that.
"I've got to be honest, I don't think anyone could have said what he said who had actually started a business or been in a business. And my own view is that what the president said was both startling and revealing. I find it extraordinary that a philosophy of that nature would be spoken by a president of the United States. It goes to something that I have spoken about from the beginning of the campaign. That this election is, to a great degree, about the soul of America. Do we believe in an America that is great because of government or do we believe in an America that is great because of free people allowed to pursue their dreams and build our future?"
President Obama has injected into the campaign an issue so basic, so elemental that it's more about metaphysics--about a person's most basic worldview--than it is about politics or even morality. The race is now about individualism versus collectivism, about whether individual effort and striving are possible and desirable, about whether anyone can ever earn his success.
That explains the other thing that struck me about Romney's speech, and you can only tell this from watching the video. When he says that Obama's vision is "insulting to every entrepreneur, every innovator in America," the crowd goes wild.
Crowds do not go wild at Romney speeches. At least they didn't, not up to now. Why the difference? Because now Mitt Romney is preaching the gospel--the secular American gospel of success. And he's preaching it like he really means it.
I've been watching Romney's speeches for the past few months, and those who repeat the conventional wisdom that he is stiff and audio-animatronic, or that he cannot connect with his audiences, have not been paying attention. Romney has been getting better and better, particularly as he has been inching toward this theme: talking about success and growth and striving for a better life, and how we can't do any of those things in Obama's stagnant, state-dominated economy. Romney's response to Obama on Tuesday was the culmination of this trend, as if Obama's remarks inspired him to rise to a higher level.
Mitt Romney's path to victory is clear. He can earn it by being the champion of an American creed of individual effort and success that goes all the way back to our founding. He needs to keep on preaching this gospel. If the election is a contest between the inspiring, optimistic individualism Romney has been offering this week, and the bitter, belittling collectivism revealed by Obama last week, then the advocate of striving individualism is going to win.