on the things you didn’t build

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.

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2 Responses to on the things you didn’t build

  1. Darrell Tangman says:

    It is good that you put quotation marks around “libertarian”. Libertarians have a wide range of opinions about what activities belong in the hands of government, but the ones who disagree with the whole concept of collective action aren’t libertarians – they’re right-wing nuts. Libertarians argue that many of the functions currently performed by government should instead be performed by private associations of one sort or another. A fundamental libertarian argument is that everything the government does involves coercion, so nothing that should not be compelled at the point of a gun belongs in the hands of government. Rational libertarians disagree about how much general benefit is necessary to justify (in essence) pointing a gun at those who will not cooperate but agree that the use of force to compel action must be reserved to the government. Absent the use of force or fraud, private associations should be able to do pretty much anything. Actual libertarians have no problem with, for example, the IEEE standards, because the IEEE can’t (legally) shoot you for sending invalid packets on a TCP/IP network.

    Note that many of the right-wing nuts, while denying that collective action by means of government intervention has been of any benefit to their constituency, will defend to the death the corporate welfare policies that benefit their particular friends. So they are dishonest right-wing nuts and not particularly “libertarian”.

    • thehandsomecamel says:

      Actual libertarians have no problem with, for example, the IEEE standards, because the IEEE can’t (legally) shoot you for sending invalid packets on a TCP/IP network.

      That’d be a weird, weird world.

      I’m never sure how to apply the idea that we should restrict the use of government coercion to causes for which you’d be willing to put a gun to someone’s head. It seems nearly all reasonable libertarians (i.e., not actual anarchists) agree that the government should build roads. But it’s hard to imagine pulling a gun on Grandma (to use P.J. O’Rourke’s nice image) to get her to pony up for a highway appropriations bill — although, of course, that is precisely the ultimate effect of such legislation. (On the other hand, it seems TOTALLY plausible that you would pull a gun on someone to stop catastrophic climate change, or even just to keep someone from pouring benzene into the drinking water – so the EPA, at least, should be safe under a libertarian regime.)

      If the “gun” metaphor is ultimately a way of saying we should only use government coercion for things that are really, really urgent (wartime national defense) or really, really useful (roads), then that’s fine. But then you have to ask, well, how urgent or useful does it have to be? Is basic science research useful enough? Is the health care crisis urgent enough? Reasonable people disagree, and I don’t know that it’s possible to draw a line of consistent principle in these matters without becoming a cartoon.

      I totally agree that President Obama was addressing the criticisms of right-wing nuts, not necessarily the arguments of sophisticated Cato Institute/reason.com libertarians. The problem, I think, is that a certain kind of nutty rhetoric has really become quite mainstream, at least within the Republican Party. So that’s what he has to address. It would be a great thing if we, as a nation, were having serious conversations about the gravity and seriousness of government coercion and what really merits it; but we aren’t. A third to a half of the political conversation seems to have been co-opted by a coalition of bloodthirsty plutocrats and talking baboons. So this is the kind of thing we have to talk about.

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