'You Didn't Build That': Straw Men, Manufactured Outrage, and Funny Memes

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Reasonable adults can disagree about what the optimal tax regime is for economic growth and fiscal responsibility, but this is not that debate.

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It's hard to think of a less debatable statement that can create such hysteria than what President Obama said this weekend in Virginia:

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. The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.

Conor Friedersdorf touched on the quote this morning in his piece on Rush Limbaugh's predictably fevered reaction ("this man hates this country"), but it's worth taking a slightly closer look. As Rich Lowry points out, this line of discussion comes fairly directly from Elizabeth Warren, the former Obama adviser who's running for Senate in Massachusetts. Though he phrased it in a boneheaded way, it's clear from the context that the president meant that entrepreneurs didn't build their businesses alone.

Mitt Romney sought to capitalize on the remark on Tuesday. On a campaign conference call, John Sununu blasted Obama for not understanding how the free market works, tacking on the inflammatory, "I wish this president would learn how to be an American." Romney continued the attack during a speech in Pennsylvania, saying, "The taxpayers pay for government. It's not like government just provides those to all of us and we say, 'Oh, thank you government for doing those things.'"

You may have noticed at this point that Romney's and Obama's statements don't really conflict in any way. Obama and Warren, as Yuval Levin argues, are being willfully obtuse, fighting an imaginary paleoconservative who doesn't want the government to provide police and roads. Romney and his advisers, meanwhile, are incorrectly insinuating that Obama attributes full success for any business to the government. Reasonable adults can have a debate about the optimal tax regime for economic growth and fiscal responsibility, but this is not that debate. This one is far sillier.

If there's any consolation, it's the memes. The one above, and these two, are taken from didntbuildthat.com:

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It's worth noting that Starship neither built San Francisco nor their own band, which rose from the ashes of Jefferson Airplane.

Here's the best of the batch, via Caroline Wren:

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To extend the metaphor, that's true. She couldn't have built that tower without Lego manufacturing those blocks and her daycare providing them. But that doesn't tell us anything about whether the price of toys is too high, too low, or just right.

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David A. Graham

David Graham is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Politics Channel. He previously reported for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The National.

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