If you haven’t seen it, here’s the video I uploaded a few days ago.
The comments were split roughly evenly between those who were understandably upset by the President’s flippant attitude towards the hard work of entrepreneurs, and liberals who did their best to run cover for the president. The latter group had one argument: “this is out of context.” Unfortunately for them, brevity does not imply a lack of context. And despite claims to the contrary, I am not afraid of people seeing the “full context.” I linked to the White House transcript both in the video description and in my corresponding blog post.
Here is the relevant section from Obama’s Roanoke speech (and here, again, is the full transcript):
There are a lot of wealthy, successful Americans who agree with me — because they want to give something back. 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. 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. There are some things, just like fighting fires, we don’t do on our own. I mean, imagine if everybody had their own fire service. That would be a hard way to organize fighting fires.
The first paragraph is blatant pandering to labor and downplaying of risk, entrepreneurship, and innovation. Although it’s true that Apple could not sell millions of iPhones without the factory workers who assemble the devices, labor and management are not equally responsible for the device’s success. Labor is merely fulfilling a contract. But Obama’s rhetoric states just the opposite. If you were to read only this paragraph, you would have to conclude that there is no difference between the grunt on the assembly line and Steve Jobs himself. You would also have to conclude that success is based entirely on luck as the person who succeeds is no harder working, no smarter, and no more innovative than the one who fails.
The third paragraph is a straw man, and a typical bait and switch. Nobody, nobody, not one single person I know of is advocating that we eliminate the fire department. Furthermore, fire departments have a long history of public sector and private sector cooperation. In an article contrasting private fire services with Obama’s healthcare vision, the Heritage Foundation provided an excellent example of how private fire services can greatly reduce the cost of fire protection in a municipality. In short, we get better results, not when government tries to provide the service itself, but when individuals pay a specialized, private-sector provider to supply the service.
At last, we get to the crux of the argument. The liberal defense of Obama hinges on the “that” referring, not to the business, but rather to the “roads and bridges” in the previous sentence. This is nonsense, and here are three reasons why: First, “If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that.” is a clear conditional statement which is logically consistent with the followup, “Somebody else made that happen.”
Second, if we assume “that” refers to “roads and bridges” we arrive at a conclusion that is demonstrably false. Publicly financed roads are ultimately built by the taxpayers. The taxpayers include business owners, and in many cases business pay a significant portion of the tax burden. As such, business owners demonstrably do pay to build the “roads and bridges.” Or, for the more comically direct route, you could simply note that for some businesses, building “roads and bridges” is their only business.
Finally, even if you don’t buy the two preceding arguments, “that” still couldn’t refer to “roads and bridges.” “That” is a singular pronoun and “roads and bridges” is a set of plural nouns. Everyone who has taken elementary English should know pronouns and their antecedents must be in agreement. Surely the greatest orator of our generation knows this. If Obama had been referring to “roads and bridges,” he would have used the plural, “those.”