Obama's economic fallacies gave us "you didn't build that"

The President's comments reveal five misunderstandings. Photo: Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY, July 28, 2012 — Team Obama is still reeling from the infamous “you didn’t build that” comment.

Observers on the president’s side are obsessed with the context of his remarks, claiming he meant only that business owners didn’t build roads; critics point out that the context is more damning than the summary phrase. The argument over context and meaning has made it the most copied chunk of text and most replayed sound bite this campaign season.

But the part that merits more scrutiny is the president’s alternative to the idea that individuals are responsible for their own success.

If “you [or he or she or they] didn’t build that,” then who did? President Obama merely said, “somebody else made that happen.”


Obama and his supporters think that the answer to that question is, obviously, public sector workers: teachers, police, the building inspector who stamped your paperwork for a factory expansion, and the IRS agent who took the other guys’ money to help build a nearby road.

“Somebody invested in roads and bridges,” the President explained, to a chorus of amens and hallelujahs, as if those people so enthralled by Obama are the ones who risked their money to build the type of infrastructure he seems to love so much.

Small and large businesses risk their capital everyday—often to build actual roads, bridges, cell phone towers, factories, etc.

Yet businesses, in the President’s view, thrive only because of the public sector. It’s not because people were “so smart” or “so hard working.” It was because “there was a great teacher somewhere in your life,” as if all great teachers are products of government largesse.

It is a fallacy of the worst sort, as Charles Krauthammer explains: “Obama’s infrastructure argument is easily refuted by what is essentially a controlled social experiment. Roads and schools are the constant. What’s variable is the energy, enterprise, risk-taking, hard work and genius of the individual.”

The President wants to engage in the chicken-egg argument. He believes that were it not for government, business couldn’t exist or thrive. He forgets that the American free market economic system predates our federal government.

In some respects, the government was designed out of a need to protect economic freedom from worse forms of government. That is Misunderstanding One.

Obama’s fallacy brings up four other misunderstandings of economics and American culture. Misunderstanding Two is the mistake of thinking that if the government can secure freedom in the marketplace for individuals to create and prosper, then more government facilitates more freedom.

It is a mistake that the Left consistently makes. They have no sense of limitation to any exercise of state power. Where is the line at which too much government chokes freedom? Our founders carefully calibrated that line; they knew that not all government is good government.

Yet the president believes that expanding government is synonymous with good government. Has he ever identified an ineffective government program? Articulated a plan to scale back or reform government? Aside from cuts to national defense, ironically the first priority as outlined by our government’s founders, he hasn’t.

The Left’s obsession with growing government betrays Misunderstanding Three: the belief that all governments are the same. A serviceable road, whether built by your township, county, or state, should remind us all that the Federal Department of Transportation needs more money, according to them.

Yet conservatives aren’t anti-government, as the New York Times regularly asserts. Conservatives are merely in favor of a proper balance among federal, state, and local powers. When Obama and company want to enlarge the federal responsibility, they emasculate local leaders and systems.

Misunderstanding Four from which the president suffers is the idea that good government is self-perpetuating, and like business, doesn’t necessarily require hard work.

“Let me tell you something, there are a whole bunch of hard working people out there,” the resident said, implying that hard work had nothing to do with anyone’s success. It is but a happy coincidence.

In fact, the Left generally believes that institutions just randomly occur, like some naturally-selected insect that got lucky because it had the right colored spots. Such a view of human institutions—government, business, or whatever—is a convenient excuse for them to take or pillage those institutions.

President Obama has done as much with the federal treasury, and advocates more pillaging, thinking the treasury will always be full.

Same with business. They will always be there to pony up. After all, “you didn’t build that,” you just got lucky. You happened to be at the right place at the right time. Somebody else built it, according to the President. There will always be another successful busines where you came from.

It’s a way to easily dismiss the accomplishments of anybody.

It all leads to Misunderstanding Five: the belief that all Americans want the help of which the President so glibly speaks. It’s not true. Many small business owners would love to operate in an environment free from government interference.

Liberal do-gooders and big government statists creep in with mandates, transfers, and compliance orders. Having been sucked into the vortex of government beneficence, businesses inevitably rub up against some federal program. Then the Left shouts “hypocrite!” when the owner professes a desire to escape.

Many Americans would be content without so much “help” from government bureaucrats.

President Obama may never recover from his revelation that he doesn’t believe in individual achievement. Let’s hope the country can recover from the effects of his misunderstanding of business, free markets, and the American economic order. 


You can learn more about the author at Rich-Stowell.com and on Facebook.

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Rich is a teacher and a soldier. In addition to writing the “Rich Like Me” political column at the Washington Times Communities, he is the author of Nine Weeks: A Teacher’s Education in Army Basic TrainingTunnel Club; and Not Another Boring Textbook: A High School Students’ Guide to their Inner Conservative. 

He writes about Salt Lake City and the World in the Food and Travel section.



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Rich Stowell

Rich Stowell has written about politics and travel for the Washington Times Communities since 2011. He is a soldier in the Utah National Guard and a fellow at the Center for Communication and Community at the University of Utah. Rich is the author of "Nine Weeks: A Teacher's Education in Army Basic Training"and continues to blog about military issues at “My Public Affairs.”

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