July 24, 2012
“If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.” Mitt Romney fell on this Obama quote like an NFL lineman on an end zone fumble during the Super Bowl. And understandably so.
For this was no gaffe, said Romney, this is what Obama believes. This is straight out of the catechism. Obama thinks that had not the government created the preconditions, none of us could succeed. We all depend on government. None of us can make it on our own.
Had Obama been channeling Isaac Newton—“If I have seen further than others it is because I am standing on the shoulders of giants”—or John Donne—“No man is an island, entire of itself”—many would have nodded in agreement.
But what Obama seemed to be saying—indeed, was saying—was that, without government, no business can succeed.
Realizing that statement rubs against a deeply ingrained American belief—that the people built the nation—Obama and his acolytes are charging that Romney ripped his words out of context.
Here is Obama’s full quote:
“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 it happen.”
Even with this preamble, Romney seems to have it right. Obama sees government as indispensable. Without the roads and bridges that government builds, without the teachers government provides, no one succeeds. It takes a village.
Yet Obama’s narrative does not tell us why some succeed and others fail. Does Obama understand America? For he surely does not seem to understand her history as once taught to every schoolchild.
From Jamestown in 1607 to Yorktown in 1781, there was no federal government. There was no United States. Yet generations of colonists had built forts, cleared lands, created farms, established workshops. Americans fed, clothed and housed themselves, creating one of the highest standards of living on earth for 3 million people.
How could the U.S. government have built the roads and bridges if the U.S. government did not exist before 1789? There were no public schools until the 19th century. Colleges were the creations of religious denominations. The Pell grant had not yet been invented.
Was government indispensable to Eli Whitney’s invention of the cotton gin, Robert Fulton’s invention of the steam boat, Alexander Graham Bell’s invention of the telephone, Guglielmo Marconi’s invention of the radio and Thomas Edison’s invention of the light bulb, and just about everything else?
Did Wilbur and Orville Wright learn how to build bicycles in a CETA program? Were the feds responsible for the flight at Kitty Hawk?
Seeing government as antecedent to enterprise, Obama has it backward. In America, individuals, families, communities came first. Hardworking men and women built the society. Only after that did they send their best and brightest off to the House of Burgesses to discuss colonial issues.