My grandfather, a gruff and uneducated but whip-smart guy, started out poor. Following a stint in the Army, he spent a few years working and scrimped together enough money to start his own restaurant in a small town near Philadelphia.
He — and the rest of his family — worked incredibly long hours, first to keep the restaurant in business and then to turn it into a success: cooking the food, managing the employees, sweeping the floors, keeping the books, pleasing the customers, and a great deal else. It was a struggle, but he ended his life as a modestly wealthy man.
But according to President Obama, “If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.”
No, Mr. President, “somebody else” didn’t. My grandfather did.
To be fair, the president’s defenders claim Obama is being taken out of context, that by “that” he was referring to infrastructure such as roads and schools. But even granting that, the entire thrust of the president’s comments was to minimize the importance of individual initiative.
[I]f you’ve been successful, 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.
So it’s not your mind that explains your success. And it’s not your hard work. What is it?
If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. . . . Somebody invested in roads and bridges.
You get the idea. According to Obama, anyone proud of his own achievements and opposed to having the government tax and regulate them more must be so deluded as to think he never received any benefit from others. Since anyone living in society obviously has benefited from others, individual achievement is, well, not quite a myth, but a bit of a delusion.
Individual businessmen? Sure they contribute something, but it’s small change compared to the contribution of others — especially the state.
Obama wants to wipe out the enormous difference between people like my grandfather, who succeed because they choose to think, create, work, and build — and those who don’t. In the president’s account, what makes us successful isn’t our intelligence, it isn’t our ambition, it isn’t in the end even the infrastructure: We all drive on the roads and go to school; we don’t all create a successful restaurant let alone a Fortune 500 company.
No, the real root of success is dumb luck. Some happen to get a lot from society, others happen to get a little. To borrow my colleague Harry Binswanger’s apt summary of Obama’s argument, “The only reason Joe Sixpack didn’t find the Higgs boson is that he didn’t happen to be provided with a large hadron collider.”
Well, Mr. President, my grandfather was not given a lot. (And how many people have been handed a Fortune 500 company and destroyed it because they didn’t exercise the intelligence and productive effort necessary to make it successful?) He was primarily responsible for his own success.
Did he benefit from others? Of course. We all do. One of the greatest things about freedom is the extent to which we can profit from collaborating with other people. As Ayn Rand points out, “Men can derive enormous benefits from dealing with one another. . . . The two great values to be gained from social existence are: knowledge and trade.”
But knowledge and trade are not gifts from the collective — let alone gifts that come with undefined strings attached. They come from the past and present achievements of other individuals.
Individuals — Aristotle, Galileo, Newton — made possible modern science. Individuals — Franklin, Edison, Tesla — created revolutionary inventions. Individuals — Rockefeller, Ford, Jobs — catapulted our standard of living forward. On a smaller level, my grandfather didn’t build the streets or invent the stove. But his restaurant? It was his blood, sweat, and ambition that made it a success.
Every creator makes use of the achievements of those who go before him. But what he creates by building on his predecessors is his achievement.
In America, it has always been hard to demonize, tax, and control someone who has clearly earned his success. Obama’s recent comments, like Elizabeth Warren’s earlier rant, are aimed at destroying the very concept of individual achievement in order to pave the way for an anti-capitalist agenda.
My grandfather is no longer alive, but I’d like to think he would have responded to Obama’s comments with an unapologetic: “I earned my success.” In truth, I suspect his message would have been somewhat more brief and a great deal more obscene.