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.