President Obama does not see the world the way most of us see it. So he campaigns with vague slogans like "Hope" and, in 2012, "Forward." But because he occasionally speaks without a teleprompter, his true thoughts slip out, as they did in 2008 when he told Joe the Plumber that we have to "spread the wealth around."
This week he blessed us with an unscripted statement of the way he sees private enterprise and the role of government in our lives: The now infamous "You didn't build that." As he sees it, you made your money and you hold your property fundamentally because of what the government did for you. There is some truth to this. Government secures peace and order, defends our lives and our property, provides and enforces a legal framework for everything we do. Without it, there would be no industry, commerce, or prosperity, no personal or cultural flourishing. Life would be, as one said, "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."
For this reason, God institutes government for fallen people to punish evil and praise what is good (1 Peter 2:14). But we also need government simply as created beings. Our callings and ambitions exceed our limited personal abilities. We rightly use government to do the things that in principle we cannot do on our own as individuals or even in private association with each other. So, for example, in Wyoming a century ago, it took the Federal Bureau of Reclamation to construct the Buffalo Bill Dam for irrigating almost 100,000 acres in the Bighorn Basin that otherwise would be fertile but uselessly arid. (Granted, William "Buffalo Bill" Cody initiated the project and private contractors did the actual construction.) For us cross-country drivers, there would be no smooth and speedy ride for either trucks or travelers were it not for the federal Interstate Highway System.
This appears to be what Obama had in mind when he said that no successful entrepreneur built a business on his own (see video clip below). He could build what he built only because his government had first provided things like schools and roads, the features and institutions of our social and commercial infrastructure. (Yes, I accept the generous interpretation of the president's remarks.) If he were simply defending the government's subsidiary role in providing what no other institution can provide and our responsibility to support it with taxes, he could be a conservative arguing against a libertarian. But his policies indicate that he goes much further. He wants government to be like part of your family, sitting with you at your kitchen table helping you with every decision and assisting your every endeavor.
We see this in his "Life of Julia" campaign graphic. Julia is the fictional, composite woman who illustrates how Obama's expanded federal government supports us at every juncture in life and how poor and unhappy we would be without it. This is the understanding of government that leads to publically funded advertising campaigns and recruitment drives to get everyone onto food stamps who possibly can be.
We see his government-centered, government-reliant view also in how Obama completely dismissed the distinguishing personal qualities that make the difference in a successful business builder. "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." So what makes the difference between success and failure in business and invention? It seems that, to our president, it can only be the government. Of course this is an argument for crony capitalism, business success through connection to government power rather than through talent, shrewd risk-taking, and a superior product.
God gives us government for our good. But it's good only insofar as it supports us in living our lives together rather than impeding and impoverishing our lives by a presumptuous oversight. In November, the question for every voting citizen to every candidate for office should be: When you take office, will you be my servant, doing only what is necessary to support my service to myself, my family, and my neighbors, or will you, in what you think is your superior wisdom, try to displace me in those roles?