Acton Institute Powerblog

The Truth about Roads, Bridges, and Businesses

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Pundits and politicians have been having a field day with President Obama’s speech given in Roanoke, Virginia, last Friday. The quote providing the most fodder is the president’s assertion, “If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.” (Here are a couple recent examples from Paul Ryan and Larry Kudlow.)

This has been widely understood to mean that the president is saying that if you have a business, you didn’t build it…and certainly not on your own. Earlier this week I pointed out a way of granting that there is some broader truth in the president’s remarks, even if they betray his own largely statist political assumptions.

But what if the “that” in “you didn’t build that” doesn’t refer to the business directly at all? What if instead it refers to the “roads and bridges” the president had just mentioned? Check out the video and decide for yourself:
Still not sure what the “that” refers to? Watch it again. I think the video conveys something the text on its own doesn’t.

The case may not be airtight, but the most natural (and certainly the most charitable) understanding of the “that” in “you didn’t build that” is in reference to the roads and bridges, not the businesses.

Why does this matter? For starters, as Christians its important that we do justice to our responsibilities as expressed in the Ninth Commandment, “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor,” or more commonly simply, “Do not lie.” As the Heidelberg Catechism puts it, one of the positive obligations arising out of this commandment is that I am to “love the truth, speak it candidly, and openly acknowledge it,” as well as to “do what I can to guard and advance my neighbor’s good name.”

I realize that latter duty in particular is often difficult, if not impossible, to fulfill in the context of political campaigning. But if the president didn’t really assert that business people didn’t build their businesses, then it’s wrong to construe his words as if that’s what he meant.

This leads to another reason that it’s important to deal with what the president actually said: many of his own assertions are problematic enough without being turned into something they aren’t. The real problem is that the president simply dichotomizes between market and state, leaving no real room for the institutions of civil society. The real problem is that the president conflates “community” with the “government.”

Charles Krauthammer gets it right: the president’s assertion is about the relationship of infrastructure (and thereby government) to economic growth, not about entrepreneurship as such. The president is attempting to make the case for infrastructure spending, something he’s been keen on for quite some time (remember all those “shovel-ready” jobs?). But as Krauthammer writes:

Obama’s infrastructure argument is easily refuted by what is essentially a controlled social experiment. Roads and schools are the constant. What’s variable is the energy, enterprise, risk-taking, hard work, and genius of the individual. It is therefore precisely those individual characteristics, not the communal utilities, that account for the different outcomes.

The ultimate Obama fallacy, however, is the conceit that belief in the value of infrastructure — and willingness to invest in its creation and maintenance — is what divides liberals from conservatives.

Conservatives do themselves and their cause a disservice when they react so vociferously to a straw man, or to an assertion that was never really made, and thereby miss engagement of the position that is really held.

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.


  • KMC

    It can be understood as to why conservatives have had a field day with this; the obama administration has been relentless in pushing its agenda at the expense of any compromise and has been quite successful in getting what they want! However, I once heard an adage that goes something like”two wrongs don’t make a right”

  • The bigger issue that I see with this battle between left and right and all of their dissagreements is that the idea of parties is inherently flawed. People are going to have different opinions as it is, but when you divide up by parties you put a spotlight on those differences. Then politicians start doing what their party wants instead of what their constituents want. No one politicians constituents are comprised of only one party so they should act accordingly. If we got rid of parties entirely this country would be much better off.

  • I’m not sure that I agree that the “that” best refers to the roads. Grammatically, he should use “those” in referring to roads. Also, business is more proximate to “that” than roads.

    A charitable reading might be that his speech was written to talk about the roads rather than the credit that entrepreneurs deserve for their success, and that he screwed up his wording (though I might argue it’s a Freudian slip).

    Still, I think you and Krauthammer are right to point out that even in context, his statement is deeply troubling and wrong on the facts in some places. For example, he cites the Golden Gate Bridge as a triumph of government. Yet the GGB was funded through municipal bonds and built with local workers. In fact, the proto-DoD was obstructionist to the program, as were national labor unions.

  • Roger McKinney

    The state could not build the infrastructure without taxes, so businesses did build “that”!

    What is the source of all wealth? It is the conversion of raw materials into useful products. The state does not do any of that. Only businesses do it. The state is a parasite upon businesses and private individuals who create wealth.

    The state creates no wealth and has no money of its own. People must have jobs in order to have income to pay taxes so the state will have anything to work with.

    What do people want today? They want jobs! The state has utterly and completely failed to created enough jobs to reduce unemployment because the state cannot do that. Only businesses can create jobs and businesses are setting on the sidelines with $ billion in cash watching the state flounder from one disaster to another.