"You Didn't Build That"


It will be a defining moment of the election season, which is bad news for the incumbent and fantastic news for the challenger. By now you've no doubt heard or seen the clip of President Obama declaring, "If you've got a business, you didn't build that."

The President's defenders are loudly crying foul, pointing out that in its context the remark simply meant that business owners didn't build the infrastructure (e.g., roads and bridges) necessary to make their businesses successful. This is marginally true, if by "context" you mean only the immediately preceding sentence. Go back a few more lines and it is fairly clear that he means to minimize business accomplishments more generally. It is not because you worked harder or had more ingenuity than the next fellow: "Let me tell you, there are a lot of hard working people out there!" The clear implication is that you are successful because of pure, dumb luck.

Many commentators have thoroughly fisked the President's remarks and shown his economic illiteracy for what it is. Roads and bridges do not somehow unfairly benefit entrepreneurs; they benefit everybody. Infrastructure is not generally the cause of success. More often it is the result of success. Further, infrastructure is paid for with tax money, the lion's share of which comes from...the very businesses Obama claims are the products of government-funded infrastructure. It is a nonsensical argument, any way you slice it.

Over at National Review, Mike Potemra puts his finger on the bigger worldview problem, as I see it. Christian theology clearly teaches, in a sense, exactly what President Obama was communicating:

"You may say to yourself, 'My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.' But remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth [...]" (Deuteronomy 8:17-18)

Nobody produces wealth by fiat. As creatures, we must use preexisting materials. Taken in that sense, it is a truism that "You didn't build that."

But President Obama is really making quite an astonishing claim. His remark is a gloss of the Deuteronomy passage: "But remember your Lord, The State, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth." Isn't that exactly what he is saying? Here we find confirmed again, as if we needed any more indication, that progressivism's idolatry of the State is nothing less than a religious competitor to God himself. The State is the giver of every good gift. It is the State you have to thank for your business success.

We have known from 2008 onward that Barack Obama believes that wealth and property really belongs to the State. It is the State that will make things a little more fair by "spreading the wealth around," as he told Joe the Plumber in an unguarded campaign moment. Nothing the President has recently said should be a surprise.

So, yes, the economic illiteracy of our President is important, and should be relentlessly hammered and exposed as such. But there are far deeper issues at play: the divinizing of the State and the resulting erosion of individual accomplishment and individual ownership. Scott Johnson summarizes Barack Obama's worldview well:

Making his case, Obama seeks to undermine the claim of right with which individuals hold their property, their income, their wealth. Under Obama's doctrine, all arise from the collective support of the government. They are not the fruit of the individual's labor.
Under Obama's doctrine, there is no just limit on the power of the government to take the individual's property. The property isn't that man's alone; he alone did not earn it. What the government does not take from the individual by taxes or regulation remains his conditionally, on the sufferance of the state.

In my recent book, I explore at length the problems with this view of property, number one of which is the 8th Commandment: "You shall not steal." The Bible clearly, unequivocally, and relentlessly teaches the right of individual private property. There is simply no way around it, and there is no way around the fact that the progressive, Statist mentality of our current President is antithetical to biblical teaching.

Brian Mattson