A few evenings ago, I heard from President Obama that “If you’ve got a business–you didn’t build that.”
This was news to me, as I had just spent a 12-hour workday building my business.
Obama’s reasoning is that “somebody along the line gave you help,” so you “didn’t get there on your own” and need “to give something back”–that is, give the government even more control over your time and earnings.
Let’s be clear: the efforts of others have been absolutely essential to building my business. One thing I love about living in a free society is the amazing benefits that come from dealing with other free, creative people. My business would not exist without global trade (I didn’t build my laptop), without leisure time spent learning from brilliant authors and mentors, and without the intellectual cornucopia of knowledge and ideas that we all inherit from our predecessors.
But my business would also not exist without me.
I was the one who decided to leave a secure job for the dream of creating exactly the kind of business I wanted. I was the one who financed it, who came up with the business plan, who suffered from the inevitable mistakes, who struggled to learn hundreds of new things I didn’t even know I needed to know, who put in whatever time it took to create a new, profitable product that never existed before.
What do I owe to those that helped me? To those I do business with, I pay them in money. To the rest, I pay them in gratitude. As for the government’s “help,” which consists of taking over every function of life and then demanding gratitude for it, I pay taxes–and the more I build, the more taxes I pay.
The fact that builders benefit from others in a free society does not mean that they should be forced to “give something back.” It means we should all treasure living in a free society, and fight to make it freer. But if we are going to talk about who owes whom the most gratitude, then we should recognize that the biggest builders are owed the most. They have not only financed the lion’s share of government, they have, more importantly, created the most enduring achievements. When I think of whom I owe gratitude to, it is individuals like Steve Jobs, not the millions of patrons of America’s welfare state.
Obama claims to be concerned about recognizing those who build America. But by denying builders credit for building anything because they didn’t build everything, he is attacking the very idea of building–and of earning.
If a man wants the citizens of a nation to cede control of their wealth to him, he first must convince them that they don’t deserve that wealth. Ayn Rand brilliantly characterized this ploy in Atlas Shrugged. James Taggart, a man with a very similar philosophy to Obama, is trying to explain why Hank Rearden, the creator of a revolutionary form of metal, doesn’t deserve any credit.
“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?”
Why indeed? And why should a man who builds something be forced to give his earnings to those who didn’t build it?
Alex Epstein is Founder of the Center for Industrial Progress