That’s a paraphrase, but I don’t think I’m too far off from what the president actually said.
There are a lot of wealthy, successful Americans who agree with me — because they want to give something back. 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. There are a lot of smart people out there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else. Let me tell you something — there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there. (Applause.)
If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. 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. The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.
The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together. There are some things, just like fighting fires, we don’t do on our own. I mean, imagine if everybody had their own fire service. That would be a hard way to organize fighting fires.
Here is some video from the speech:
As just about the entire internet has noted, Obama is echoing Elizabeth Warren, who made similar remarks last year.
“You built a factory out there? Good for you,” she says. “But I want to be clear: you moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for; you hired workers the rest of us paid to educate; you were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory, and hire someone to protect against this, because of the work the rest of us did.”
What Warren and Obama conveniently ignore is that the very same people they are castigating are the ones who paid for those roads, bridges and police through their taxes. Considering that approximately half of all Americans do not pay any net federal income taxes, I wonder who the “we” here are supposed to represent.
To be sure, no man is an island, and successful entrepreneurs generally have assistance at some point in their lives. But the idea that successful businessmen are not ultimately the ones responsible for the success of their business is absurd. Obama suggests that the wealthy only achieve their success through luck – at least that is the implication of this little tirade.
President Obama’s demagoguery is all an attempt to continue his narrative: rich people (especially a certain well-coiffed Mormon rich person) bad. In fact, the narrative is even more pernicious, because what Obama is attempting to do is argue that the rich are only rich because of the government. As Ace puts it:
So the top 1% pay 40.6% of all government costs, the next 4% pay about another 20%, and the bottom 95% pay less than 40% of all government costs.
So when Obama says that the wealthy wouldn’t be where they are if not for “The Government” building roads and maintaining police — the wealthy ought to agree, and say, “Yes, and you’re welcome. We paid 40 cents out of every dollar spent on those things.”
“The Government” spends money, but it has no money of its own. What it has is the power to coercively extract money from citizens. And it coerces a lot of it from the wealthy — the wealthy pay a disproportionate amount for the roads and police and armed forces, even though they don’t really use such things much more than anyone else.
Yet Obama seems to think “The Government” just came by its trillions (and borrowed trillions) by happenstance, and spent itsmoney out of its own good heart. And he wants to be compensated for his benevolence.
Yuval Levin also comments on the speech, and notes that the President based most of his speech on a strawman.
The first thing to say about the president’s argument is that most of it is true, and is very, very obvious. No one would disagree with the specific things he says, except perhaps the vague and strange “If you’ve got a business—you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.” Who? But the president clearly thinks that some people do disagree with his more general point that everyone depends on society. It’s very evident from this passage and from a great deal of what he has to say about his opponents that Obama thinks he is running against a band of nihilistic Ayn Rand objectivists who champion complete and utter radical individualism. That weird notion is also behind the various attempts to link Paul Ryan to Rand, which are pretty amusing if you’ve followed Ryan (for what it’s worth, I would say Ryan thinks Ayn Rand is correct in her analysis of the left, which she believes has drawn the wrong lessons from the death of God, but is incorrect in many of her own prescriptions because she shares the left’s belief that God is dead, but that’s a story for another day…).
The president implies that his opponents don’t think government has any purpose at all, or that laws are necessary for free markets, and don’t recognize the fruits of any common efforts in American history. That’s just ridiculous. I’m sure there are many libertarians who wish Republicans really were radical individualists, but there’s just simply nothing in what Republicans have said or done in our time to support the idea that they are. The Ryan budget, which almost every congressional Republican has voted for, is an attempt precisely to focus the government on achieving what people can’t achieve on their own and on effectively helping the vulnerable and those who cannot help themselves. It envisions a very significant set of public entitlements and programs, in some cases larger than the ones we have now, but tries to bring them into line with the ethic and way of life of our free economy, to make sure they don’t crowd out civil society, and to make them far more efficient and effective than they have been lately. It is a different vision of American life, but not a radically individualist one. It makes for a smaller government on the whole, but it is built on a clear sense that government serves some very crucial purposes. And Republicans are proposing a very gradual path to that vision of America beyond the welfare state. The president would like to imagine that he’s running against radical individualism, but he’s running against some fairly modest reform proposals to avert fiscal catastrophe.
Even more repugnant than the substance of Obama’s remarks is its tone. This is one of the more detestable of Obama character traits. He is completely condescending towards those who have contrary opinions. The video above doesn’t really do justice to the tenor of Obama’s overall remarks, but his snark and sarcasm would make your average blogger blush. “Ah, you doth protest too much, Mr. Zummo,” some readers might be saying right now. “Your sarcasm doth drip from the pages of your scribblings.” First of all, it’s Doctor Zummo, thank you very much. Second, I am not the President of the United States. Yes, as a child I always assumed that I would be running for said office the first year I was eligible. Luckily for America, that didn’t happen. So, I get to be a little snarky. The President of the United States, on the other hand, should be able to communicate in a tone that doesn’t sound like he’s writing a blog called “POTUS and Enjoying It.” Yet time and again he sounds incredulous that anyone anywhere ever says anything that contradicts his lofty opinions. So not only is the man a demagoguue, he’s also a petulant child.