Julian Sanchez would like to know why we should bother to note that nothing we do in the modern world is really an individual effort.
President Obama made a speech the other day that has caused some stir — especially the part where he reminded people that any individual’s material success depends on a whole web of collectively-built physical and social constructs:
[L]ook, 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.
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.
Sanchez then asks:
Why can’t “we” do things “together” by… well, forming businesses? Clubs? Civic organizations? Churches? If we’re assigning credit for past achievements—and implicitly, the debt we owe for them—why the federal government and not, say, our fellow citizens directly, or state and municipal authorities, or the whole of humanity engaged in mutually enriching global trade?
Of course, there are solid arguments why certain things we build together—roads, for one—will generally not be adequately supplied unless we do them through government. But… if we limit ourselves to these kinds of examples, we arguably end up with a pretty libertarian conception of government. Does Obama think he has to make the argument against anarcho-capitalism?
Yes. Yes he does. Would you like to know why? Because, with a handful of increasingly marginalized exceptions, every Republican for the last four years has stood up at every opportunity, in every public gathering large and small, and declaimed the evils of government. Not just saying, “I don’t think we need a public pension” or “Let’s rein in these farm subsidies!” No, the unflagging tone of the rhetoric from the right has been one of utter contempt for government in all its roles, in every possible aspect. Government is the enemy, the Evil One, the burning eye staring down on you from Mordor. Government is coming to take your guns and make you work in the tofu mines to feed the liberal elite. Government is going to eat your children and burn down your church and put gays where God used to be. Government is the most horrific, malevolent, hateful, loathsome thing ever to drag its scaly, slick belly across the earth, insatiable in its appetite for taxes and monstrous in its inefficiency. It can do no good, and your only hope is to stuff it with loyal Republicans (preferably real Republicans, not that weaselly Bob Dole/Jeb Bush kind), so they can quietly swap its bones, from the inside, for private contracts — until at last it collapses, weak and jellylike, under its own weight.
Not that that will be the end of it. The creature will rise again, of course. (But fear not! Every age has its Grover Norquist.)
That is why the President (and Elizabeth Warren) feel they have to start from the ground floor, explaining the benefits of civil society. That is why he can’t have a normal discussion with grownups about what role we’d like the federal government to play in our society. It’s because those on the “libertarian” right (and I like Sanchez, but you lie down with dogs…) have dedicated themselves with apostolic/apoplectic fervor to (a) shitting on the whole notion of collective action and (b) promoting this adolescent fantasy that successful business managers are autopoietic gods — mighty, self-realizing Olympians, who can only be brought low… by a slightly higher top marginal rate.