Very rarely do one or two sentences tell us much about a person. But every once in a while, just a few words – from “tear down this wall” to “let them eat cake” – can speak volumes about a public official, succinctly and effectively crystalizing his or her belief system for the public at large.
Speaking at a rally in Virginia last week, President Obama had just such a moment. “Look, if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own,” he said. “If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that,” he continued. “Somebody else made that happen.”
That ‘somebody else’ would, in his view, be government.
Now, I want to be fair to the president. I doubt he meant to say that the government singlehandedly builds businesses from the ground up, or that individuals play no role in their development. But he certainly seems to think the government does – and should – play a much larger role in our economy; and he dismisses the very idea that has underpinned American prosperity since our nation’s inception – individual initiative: the spark that turns a family cupcake recipe into a family cupcake business, the ambition that buds in garage workshops and late-night college classrooms, the drive that pulls poverty up by the roots and allows Americans of every race and every creed to achieve their dreams.
To dismiss this aspirational American spirit in such a cavalier fashion betrays a serious misunderstanding of how our market economy functions. It also says quite a bit about the president’s underlying political assumptions.
In his speech, President Obama attributes successful businesses to “roads and bridges” and “teachers,” rather than to individuals with vision and determination. Of course, we all benefit from government actions; but who is the government? WE are. Who pays the taxes to fund government actions? WE do. There is no government independent of the people, except in elitists’ minds. In their view, government is responsible for people’s success, and they forget that it is WE the taxpayers who make government action possible in the first place.
All of us support things like roads and teachers – and fire engines and policemen and post offices. What conservatives do not support, however, are heavy-handed government regulations that crush small businesses. We do not support raising taxes on struggling companies and budding entrepreneurs. We do not support the government playing venture capitalist (for which it has a horrible track record anyway) by doling out cash that our country doesn’t have to politically favored industries that don’t need it.
We also understand that even the most well-intentioned of government initiatives rarely work out as promised. Nor do they ever cost as little as promised. To put it succinctly, conservatives have a healthy skepticism when it comes to government – a skepticism that the president and his allies do not seem to share. While these are legitimate philosophical differences, they do present a stark choice worthy of intense discussion.
In many ways, it is this very debate over the proper role of government – over “who makes it happen” – that voters will have to decide this November: is it we the people or they the government who should be in the business of building companies?
It’s an important choice, and it’s one that will affect our country for years to come.