President Obama’s remarks last week about the dependence of American businesspeople have provoked quite a bit of controversy. In case you’re living in a bubble, here’s what the President said:
“There are a lot of wealthy, successful Americans who agree with me because they want to give something back,” the president said. “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,” he said. “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’s 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 and 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.
As Yuval Levin points out, the President is in part arguing with a hyperlibertarian straw man who rejects any role for government whatsoever. Au contraire, Levin avers, Obama’s opponents concede that there are certain things government does well:
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.
Jordan Ballor calls our attention to the element missing in the President’s oversimplified government/individual binary. Individuals, he says, are embedded in and dependent upon a series of relationships.
It is in fact true that businesses and entrepreneurs cannot be successful on their own. Indeed, none of us are autonomous or radically independent in this way. The president rightly pointed to the experience that all of us have had of someone nurturing us and helping us grow and develop. The family is the first institution where we experience this community of love, but we also find such expressions in different ways in churches, schools, and workplaces.
As for businesses, their success depends on cultivating a relationship of service and trust with their customers. This reality isn’t groundbreaking to anyone who has experienced success in business (or any other field for that matter). The president also invoked the idea of “giving back,” when he contended, “There are a lot of wealthy, successful Americans who agree with me because they want to give something back.” This idea of “giving back” causes many of the president’s ideological opponents to take umbrage. The concern is that such language depends on an idea of business as having first “taken from” in order to later “give back.”
But such an understanding doesn’t do justice to the real dynamic between business and customer. The relationship is based on voluntary exchange, in which each party gives something to the other. It’s true that in a just exchange nothing more is then owed by either party to the other. But it’s also true within the larger context of human reality that we recognize the gracious nature of such relationships, and can be thankful that we have the ability and freedom to give and receive. In this sense the idea of “giving back” can be understood on the basis of having first been given to rather than having taken from.
We all know at some level that we didn’t get where we are on our own, and that we have an ongoing responsibility and dependence on others for our continuing enjoyment of the goods of human existence.
In The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith offers an account of the transtion from feudalism to freedom in terms of the changes in relationships of dependence. Where the retainer and the serf are dependent upon the patronage of one lord, the craftsman and the merchant are dependent upon the patronage of numerous customers. They are thus functionally independent, not because they are utterly self-reliant, but because no one can exercise the influence over them that one lord can have over his retainers.
By insisting in an exaggerated fashion on our dependence upon government, by overlooking the ways in which multiple sources of support in civil society and the marketplace afford us a kind of independence, President Obama would, in effect, turn the clock backward. For him, the transaction that seems to matter the most is between the officeholder dispensing what can only amount to patronage and those who look to him for the things they need. Tammany Hall and the various machines that ran Chicago politics come to mind here, But in those days, you could escape from New York and Chicago, seeking greater opportunities and less dependence outside the city limits. What the President seems to have in mind is much greater in scope and much more pervasive in its reach. In squeezing civil society and in effacing the distinction between levels of government, the President’s vision would seem to leave little room for the development or maintenance of a rightly ordered relationship between the individual and the community.