There's No Such Thing as Building a Business

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The ridiculous outcry over "You didn't build that" seems very familiar to me. It calls to mind the hysteria that greeted Margaret Thatcher's comment, "There is no such thing as society". The parallel is almost exact. Obama said the words, but plainly didn't mean what his critics say he meant. Thatcher said the words too, but obviously wasn't saying what her critics said she was. Both speakers were careless, allowing their opponents to draw an unflattering caricature. In each case, though, there was a particle of justice in this willful misrepresentation--because a caricature doesn't work unless you recognize its subject.

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 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.

Reading this--and especially watching the video--I think it's pretty clear that when Obama said "You didn't build that" he had in mind either the "roads and bridges" of the previous sentence, or else "this unbelievable American system" in the sentence before. Even if you don't find this as obvious as I do, it's absurd to attribute to him the view that the people who build a business deserve no more credit for it than society at large--the simple-minded reading of "you didn't build that". You don't need to listen to the adjoining sentences or the rest of the speech. Just ask yourself whether Obama is even sane, and that interpretation is impossible. It's not what he meant, and it's not what he thinks.

"There is no such thing as society" was taken from an interview Thatcher gave in 1987. For many of my countrymen, it perfectly sums her up. I've seen it quoted hundreds of times--maybe three or four times in its full context. Here's what she said.

I think we have gone through a period when too many children and people have been given to understand "I have a problem, it is the Government's job to cope with it!" or "I have a problem, I will go and get a grant to cope with it!" "I am homeless, the Government must house me!" and so they are casting their problems on society and who is society? There is no such thing. There are individual men and women and there are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first... There is no such thing as society. There is [a] living tapestry of men and women and people and the beauty of that tapestry and the quality of our lives will depend upon how much each of us is prepared to take responsibility for ourselves and each of us prepared to turn round and help by our own efforts those who are unfortunate.

To any fair-minded person, the idea that Thatcher denied the existence of society is as daft as the idea that Obama thinks Steve Jobs didn't build Apple. Actually her meaning was nearly the opposite of the quoted words. What she meant, and what she ought to have said, was, "When you tell society to fix something, remember it's not some abstract third party you're making demands on but the people who make up that society." What Obama meant, and what he ought to have said, was, "If you've got a business, you didn't build it on your own." Neither claim, sympathetically understood, is the least bit controversial. If we had anything better to do, such as discussing actual policy proposals, we wouldn't have time for this nonsense.

And yet, as I say, these idiotic caricatures are nonetheless recognizable. Thatcher did want to persuade people that they were demanding too much of government, that Britain needed a revival of individual effort and initiative. "There is no such thing as society" kind of fit the case. It stuck and she was never allowed to forget it. It was unfair, but in a way she had it coming.

"You didn't build that" could gain something of the same specious stature--especially if Obama loses in November (and if you ask me, he's doing what he can to make that defeat more likely). Obama's main, and sometimes I think only, theme in this campaign is that the rich aren't paying their fair share. Quite what that fair share would be, he never says--but this isn't it. He also thinks the rich need reminding all the time how much they owe the rest of us. They're profiting from all our efforts, often at our expense, and have the nerve to pat themselves on the back about it. I don't think that's a caricature. Apparently, it's what he thinks.

So "You didn't build that" kind of fits the case. Just as Thatcher helped her critics, Obama is helping his.

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