Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The True Context of "You Didn't Build That"

When President Obama made his infamous “you didn’t build that” speech, the Romney campaign was quick to incorporate it into their campaign, to considerable success. Indeed, “We Did Build That” became a central tenet of the Republican National Convention. Naturally, it didn’t take long for Democrats to get their panties in a bunch over this message. The Obama campaign released an official statement, followed by an official TV ad, accusing Romney of taking the quote out of context. Many major new sites ran editorials blasting Romney for the same thing. Were their complaints justified? Here’s the full speech:

The words themselves seem grammatically ambiguous. It's certainly plausible the word “that” could refer to the “roads and bridges” in the prior sentence, rather than to the businesses themselves. Perhaps the speech’s core message would be better reflected by the statement “you didn’t build that alone.” But the truth is that ideologically, it hardly matters. Sniping at sentence structure is not the root of Republican outrage at this speech. No, Obama did not say that people don’t deserve any credit for what they earn, and most Republicans are not saying he did. What the president was saying and continues to say that they don’t deserve full credit, and the implication he draws from this is that therefore, what they earn does not fully belong to them. He’s using collectivist rhetoric to argue that really it belongs to all of us. That’s something that many Americans rightfully find outrageous, and totally something you can build a campaign off of.

The president’s speech was modeled off of the more eloquent – but equally flawed – reasoning of Massachusetts Democrat Elizabeth Warren, who famously argued that “nobody gets rich on their own.” Citing publicly funded schools, police/fire departments, and roadways, she observed that public services play an integral role in allowing the private sector to thrive. This is partly true (although Republicans are quick to point out that it's taxable business profits which enable government spending, not vice-versa). But the view that this involuntary assistance in some way reduces the right to keep one’s earnings is a very different contention indeed. Mandatory schooling and an enforced monopoly on roadways do not carry with them any moral obligation to sacrifice our possessions to the government – much less the arbitrary and enormous portions of our possessions that Democrats demand. Doing business with the voluntary cooperation of other people does not imply collective credit for your success, and it does not justify the forced redistribution of that business’s profits. The entire idea that the means by which you legally acquire something is relevant or in any way diminishes your claim to ownership of it is just a preposterous argument, and it’s exactly what Obama was and is suggesting.

He was and is suggesting that since people interact and cooperate with one another, everybody deserves some slice of everyone else’s pie. He was and is arguing that since individuals succeed within the elaborate maze government has built around them, their success is not wholly their own. He was and is using this flawed logic to outline a preemptive justification for even more redistributive taxation. He was and is attacking the notion of individual property rights by deliberately blurring the lines of ownership. For that, he was and is wrong.

But even if you think he’s right, at the very least please stop whining about context. It’s dodging the issue. If you truly want to take things in context, the two sentences at the center of this controversy are insignificant in the larger context of the speech itself. In that speech, Obama conveyed exactly the emotion he meant to convey. The rest of the video only reiterates the same “we’re all in this together” theme: greedy businessmen who want to keep what they earn are attacked as selfish and vain, to great applause and great fanfare. The root idea being attacked is the exact idea he peddled in that speech to rile up the crowd.

And even if you naively insist that entire speech was somehow one big unintentional gaffe, please, PLEASE stop pretending Obama (or any other politician on the face of the earth) is somehow above taking advantage of those gaffes. Obama forfeited the ability to bitch about context when he decided to use Romney’s “I kind of like firing people” comment out of his context. And at least this issue has an underlying ideological dispute; don’t even get me started about the whole dog-on-the-roof thing. I don’t know of any other politician who so sanctimoniously preens about being “above party politics” while personally engaging in as much of the dirty work as Obama does himself. If that stuff passes for campaigning in modern politics, fighting the collectivization of property rights is more than fair game.


  1. Is the collectivization of property rights a bad thing here? I'm not sure I understand the negativity towards it.

    1. Yes it is Aaron, because it is antithetical to individual property rights. Collective ownership means that nobody really owns anything. The public education your parents recieved has helped you afford the computer you're sitting at right now. Does that mean taxpayers partially own it, that it's not really yours? A craftsman had to spend hours making the chair you're sitting on, and others spent months constructing the building you're sitting in; does that mean those people are entitled to just come live in your home? No; these things are still entirely yours. You own them, and nobody else gets a slice of them. The people who helped you along the way were already compensated for their services. Without clearly demarcated lines about who owns what, an open market economy cannot function, and individual property rights can have no meaning.

      Rights cannot be assigned to groups, because by definition they're inherent to individual human beings. That's what separates a right from a privilege: privileges can be given, but rights can only be taken, since we have them from birth. The right to property is among these rights, and it's constitutionally guaranteed. Forcibly taking any amount of an individual's property, whether through an armed robbery or through taxation, is theft. There are certain constitutionally enumerated purposes for which that theft is legal, but it's still theft.

      If you disagree with me that our belongings our 100% our own, please tell me how much of what I own belongs to you, and why.