No one built this country on their [sic] own. This nation is great because we built it together. This nation is great because we worked as a team. This nation is great because we get each other’s backs.
The fuller argument behind this passage is as follows. Because no one made anything on his own, no one owns anything on his own; property belongs to society. Therefore, society has a right to ‘invest’ and redistribute that property.
I addressed this kind of nonsense in an old blog post regarding Occupy Wall Street (and also Democrat Elizabeth Warren):
You speak as if socialism held a monopoly on the idea of social interaction, as if capitalism meant isolation of each individual from every other. If capitalism meant isolation, then there would be no advertising, no Web sites, no bookstores, no movie theatres, no cell phones, no factories, no skyscrapers, no clothing stores, no supermarkets, no stock markets, no farmers’ markets, no markets, no agreements, no contracts, no trade.
Both capitalism and socialism are social systems; both entail society and social interaction. Under capitalism, social interaction among individuals is chosen solely by the interacting individuals by mutual agreement for mutual benefit. Under socialism, there is only forced obedience to the directives of the largest gang: the ‘majority’, a.k.a. ‘society’.
Last week in Roanoke, Obama reiterated his State of the Union theme with only slight variation:
There are a lot of wealthy, successful Americans who agree with me—because they want to give something back. [Emphasis added. See later.] 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. (Applause.)
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. [Obama now claims that his “that” refers to “roads and bridges,” not your “business.” Of course, we understood “that,” but “that” does not help his argument.] 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.
In other words, because the government robbed from rich people in the past and spent it on you—to build you roads and bridges and send you to a lousy public school that made you more inclined to accept Obama’s drivel—it’s okay for the government to rob you even more now to spend on other people.
My blog post on Occupy Wall Street addressed this angle of absurdity too:
A capitalist benefits from many individuals, not by robbing some and being robbed by others, but by trading with individuals by mutual agreement, by offering fruits of his labor in return for fruits of theirs. Yes, a small percentage of what the government robs from me and from other producers is spent allegedly to benefit me, but I would benefit infinitely more if that robbed wealth instead remained in the hands of us producers so that we could trade with each other for private roads, private fire-fighting, and—above all—private education. Don’t assume that robbing on my behalf gives you the right to rob. Don’t assume you may rob my dollars because you return me dimes.
When Charles Payne [a successful man] was poor, he benefited from the wealthy by trading with them, not by receiving government handouts paid for by robbing them.
In short, Obama’s argument in his State of the Union address was that you benefited from others, so you don’t own anything. In Roanoke, his argument was that you benefited from others whom government robbed on your behalf, so you don’t own anything.
Obama’s premises of course go back much farther than to Occupy Wall Street. Here is a passage from a 2002 article of mine, “The Collectivist Notion of Giving Back to Society”:
The give-backers equivocate on the word “society.” They first use the word “society” to refer to those individuals who have created the knowledge and wealth made available to [Bill] Gates and other producers, and they later use the same word to refer to those individuals who have created nothing and to whom Gates and other producers should “give back.” It is as if they think society is a single, living organism, a single, collective consciousness, a single moral agent—instead of a collection of sovereign individuals who must be judged individually.
Indeed, that is precisely what intellectuals behind the give-back notion do think. This was the view of German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel, one of the main fathers of the Marxist, Fascist, and Nazi styles of collectivism, and still a favorite in university philosophy departments.
Obama’s argument is also a recasting of the old ‘interdependence’ notion, which I wrote about here:
The pragmatist, anti-ideological—i.e. unprincipled—argument of [Hillary] Clinton and Obama amounts to this: When people are free, they benefit from trading with each other. Since they benefit from each other, they depend on each other. Since they depend on each other, they must not be left free. …
What Clinton and Obama evade is that free people are free to select their trading partners by mutual consent, to mutual benefit.
Here is Obama’s argument in essence: Since individuals benefit from others through consensual intercourse (trade), a rapist may take from everyone.
As noted on this Facebook page, Obama’s argument also appears in the mouth of a villain from Atlas Shrugged (published in 1957) by Ayn Rand:
“He didn’t invent iron ore and blast furnaces, did he?”
“Rearden. He didn’t invent smelting and chemistry and air compression. He couldn’t have invented his Metal but for thousands and thousands of other people. His Metal! Why does he think it’s his? Why does he think it’s his invention? Everybody uses the work of everybody else. Nobody ever invents anything.”
She said, puzzled, “But the iron ore and all those other things were there all the time. Why didn’t anybody else make that Metal, but Mr. Rearden did?”
– Atlas Shrugged, Part 1 Chapter 9
Ayn Rand also wrote this (H/T to Rob Tarr):
It is morally obscene to regard wealth as an anonymous, tribal product and to talk about ‘redistributing’ it. The view that wealth is the result of some undifferentiated, collective process, that we all did something and it’s impossible to tell who did what, therefore some sort of equalitarian “distribution” is necessary—might have been appropriate in a primordial jungle with a savage horde moving boulders by crude physical labor (though even there someone had to initiate and organize the moving). To hold that view in an industrial society—where individual achievements are a matter of public record—is so crass an evasion that even to give it the benefit of the doubt is an obscenity.
Anyone who has ever been an employer or an employee, or who has observed men working, or has done an honest day’s work himself, knows the crucial role of ability, of intelligence, of a focused, competent mind—in any and all lines of work, from the lowest to the highest. He knows the ability or the lack of it (whether the lack is actual or volitional) makes a difference of life-or-death in any productive process. The evidence is so overwhelming—theoretically and practically, logically and “empiricially,” in the events of history and in anyone’s own daily grind—that no one can claim ignorance of it. Mistakes of this size are not made innocently.
[“What is Capitalism”, published in The Objectivist Newsletter, November and December 1965, and reprinted in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, New York: Signet (pb), 1967, pp. 11–34; p. 30.]
In addition to the absurdities that many have identified in Obama’s Roanoke speech, here is one more. Obama cited two personal traits that people credit for their own success: being “smart” and working “hard.” Obama then concluded that since those traits—which are possessed by many—do not explain success, there must be some external cause of success.
It did not occur to Obama that success comes from another personal trait: rationality, which entails not just the hard work of following the directions of someone else, but a first-handed focus on and commitment to the facts of reality. Rationality, as identified by Ayn Rand, entails the virtues of independence, integrity, honesty, justice, productiveness, and pride. (See Ayn Rand’s essay, “The Objectivist Ethics,” reprinted in The Virtue of Selfishness.) Unlike being “smart” and working “hard,” these virtues are uncommon, and they do explain success. Obama and his supporters evidently have no inkling of—or else they evade their resentment of—any connection between success and moral virtue. From that perverse perspective, it is a small step to conclude that no one deserves more success than anyone else does.
Under a welfare state, in the fields of rabble-rousing—euphemistically called “community organizing”—and other political maneuvering, there is truth in this notion that moral virtue does not lead to ‘success’. But not in a free society.