Neither did private equity
In a pluralistic society such as our own, government represents our least common denominator: it is the only institution that looks out for the common good; the only place where nobody gets left behind based on color, creed, gender, birthplace, income, sexual orientation, and so on. Each of us who chooses to be part of this nation must honor our mutual responsibilities to the other members. Government is how we determine and administer those responsibilities — the conditions for joining the American club — as well as the benefits that membership bestows upon us. Government does not create our society’s material or cultural wealth, but it provides the foundation for society’s productive capacity to be utilized. And government makes sure that everyone has the ability to both enjoy and contribute to that collective wealth.
Or, at least, that’s how liberals like myself see it. I hear that positive vision of government and its underlying social responsibilities when President Obama makes statements such as this:
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.
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.
So we say to ourselves, ever since the founding of this country, you know what, there are some things we do better together. That’s how we funded the GI Bill. That’s how we created the middle class. That’s how we built the Golden Gate Bridge or the Hoover Dam. That’s how we invented the Internet. That’s how we sent a man to the moon. We rise or fall together as one nation and as one people, and that’s the reason I’m running for President—because I still believe in that idea. You’re not on your own, we’re in this together.
Conservatives, of course, see it differently. Government is evil; a necessary evil, in some cases, but evil nonetheless. Instead of a symbiotic relationship with society’s wealth, government expropriates individual initiative and creative capacity. The dependent are rewarded at the expense of the independent.
Neither perspective is entirely representative, nor is either entirely accurate. Liberals recognize the failings of government while (non-Tea Party) conservatives accept its essentiality. But even on areas of political agreement, the two visions seem to be mutually incompatible. Obama’s above remarks serve as somewhat of a political Rorschach test, sorting us into our separate ideological camps — even here on this blog.
The president’s statement is a perfect partisan razor because his underlying point, stated another way, would draw near-universal endorsement: “Successful entrepreneurs and business owners benefit from public support in education, infrastructure, and research.” Until the Tea Party, those had been the areas of federal spending that received the most bipartisan support. Mitt Romney even made the president’s very same point yesterday. Yet the remarks have a special ability to draw visceral reactions on both the left and right.
Liberals have been energized by Obama’s spirited defense of government, which many feel has been under siege since Reagan without a strong Democratic rebuttal. Obama’s wording was notable because it mirrored, almost verbatim, this statement from Elizabeth Warren that went viral last September. At the time, Warren’s comments drew an unflattering contrast with Obama, whom liberals accused of appeasing the Tea Party during the debt ceiling negotiations. Warren instantly became a liberal icon and has raised prodigious sums for her Senate race. Obama’s adoption of the same message has been an important part of his rapprochement with the most ardent 2008 supporters.
Conservatives, on the other hand, have met Obama’s statement with contempt. Rush Limbaugh, characteristically, said the statement proved Obama’s hatred for America, and the RNC has already packaged his words into attack ads and snarky photoillustrations (see top photo.) But even equanimous conservatives reacted viscerally. Tyler’s link to Will Wilkinson yesterday revealed that they both bristled at the president’s rhetoric, even though each generally supports Obama’s position on the policy he was advocating, the expiration of the Bush tax cuts for the top 2%.
Since the substance of Obama’s argument is not disputed, the polarization must come from how we perceive the president’s tone and emphasis. Conservatives hear him degrading individual initiative and success. Wilkinson, a technocratic center-right blogger for The Economist, took umbrage with Obama’s phrase, “give something back,” assuming, by implication, that Obama did not respect the progressive tax rates that the wealthy already pay. The rest of the GOP has targeted the poorly-constructed sentence, “If you have a business, you didn’t build that,” even though the sentence prior clearly identifies “roads and bridges” as the antecedent of “that” — not “business,” as Romney and others have insinuated.* Nevertheless, many on the right read into his words a genuine hostility to wealth, entrepreneurship, and free enterprise.
From my perspective on the left, the president’s statement was neither anti-rich nor anti-business; in fact, he was talking about strengthening the market system by increasing access and fairness. I, like him, have been frustrated with the perception among many that the Invisible Hand allocates wealth and status only according to hard work and talent. Those factors are important, but luck and privilege play as large — or perhaps a larger — role, and I write this as someone who has been endowed with more than my fair share of both. Your starting position in life, namely how wealthy your parents are, is the single strongest predictor of future earnings, and it is nearly impossible to climb from the lowest income quintile to the top quintile in a lifetime. The president is not demeaning individual initiative — he says so explicitly in this statement and many others — but rather ensuring that it is rewarded fairly through the collective provision of opportunity and prosperity to all who work for it. We should honor and encourage success, he says, but also accept that individual wealth is self-evident proof of society’s providence, not merely through the supply of essential goods and services, but for the creation of “this unbelievable American system… that allowed you to thrive.” The most successful among us are, by definition, those that have benefitted most from that system. They, therefore, have the greatest responsibility to those who have worked hard but have not received the same rewards, as well as for the largest share of the down payment on the success of future generations, just as the bequests of previous generations planted the seeds for their own prosperity.
But that’s just my take. I’m guessing half of you see it differently.
*More evidence that spending on education — particularly grammar — is important.