Voices
Associated Press/Photo by Susan Walsh

He meant what he said

Campaign 2012 | Don't let the president off the hook for 'You didn't build that'

Issue: "School choice," Aug. 25, 2012

President Obama and his campaign staff would love for you to believe that his now famous "You-didn't-build-that" comment was taken brazenly out of context and made by his opponents to say something he never meant to express. Don't you believe it.

It doesn't matter whether you read the abbreviated version, which the Obama people say misrepresents his intent, or the full version of his speech on July 13 in Roanoke, Va. Either way, the meaning is inescapable. The president was arguing for a collectivist rather than an individualist view of political culture. Individual vision and enterprise, he was saying loud and clear, just don't count for as much as what we do together.

There's just enough truth wrapped into that package to make it attractive-and even a little bit compelling. It's a winsome argument in the same way that Hillary Clinton's assertion was winsome in the title of her book, It Takes a Village. There are, to be sure, lots of assignments in life that we simply can't achieve if we try to pull them off by ourselves. Only when we lock arms with others and join our hearts and voices with theirs can we generate the synergy and momentum necessary to win the day.

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And so, our president warned, folks should never try to take credit for building enterprises of their own, pointing to the results and crowing, "Look what I built!" Posturing as something of a moral scold, Obama reminded his listeners that to get where you are, you had to use roads and bridges that someone else designed and built. Taken in that simple context, the Obama metaphor makes some sense. It might even find some justification from the Bible, in its various warnings against pride and arrogance.

Problem is, though, that the Obama warnings didn't come in a Sunday school class or as a theological treatise against pomposity and self-centeredness. They came in the middle of a political campaign for the office of president-a campaign where the very design of the political structure was up for grabs. "This is how our political bodies ought to be designed," the president was arguing-and in his optimum structural design, the individual is less important than the group.

You don't have to guess about that issue, or put words in the president's mouth. That's exactly what he was saying. "You didn't build that," he says demeaningly to the individual, or the small business owner, or the entrepreneur with a bright idea he'd like to develop. There's been a lot of discussion what the antecedent of the "that" in the president's assertion might have been-but the fact is that it doesn't matter. It might be the enterprise itself, that someone built and nurtured and brought to a high level of productivity. Or it might be the roads and bridges that everyone agrees stand for all the government services without which you would never be able to build your private enterprise. Either way, Obama suggests that you deserve no credit. The real reason your effort succeeded is that there was a beneficent government standing by that guaranteed everything would work for you.

The biggest problem with the president's argument is not that any of us in his or her right mind think we can do it all ourselves. We know that "no man is an island." We agree with the point famously made by essayist Leonard Read in his little book called I, Pencil-where he stresses how many varied things from all over the world have to come together in just the right way for something as simple as a pencil to be successfully manufactured. (Mr. Read notes that no human being, but only God, could coordinate such a process.) We know that a communitarian view of things is sometimes an important corrective to our self-centeredness and pride.

The big problem with the president's argument is instead its almost overt skepticism-bordering on cynicism-of a grass-roots-up approach to the building of our society, accompanied by an implied call for a coercive centralization of power and influence. And you don't have to guess if that's the shape this president thinks government should take. It's not just what he said in Roanoke. It's the whole way he's governed since he came to office in January 2009.

Email jbelz@worldmag.com

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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