Obama’s ‘you didn’t build that’ comment was wrong

Context matters.

Indeed, that is the argument liberals have been making for the past week, as they desperately try to explain away the president’s “you didn’t build that” comment.

I’ve heard a lot of spin from the left, but the explanations for what the president supposedly actually meant are as offensive, if not more offensive, than our initial impression.

The key argument seems to be that the president was not telling entrepreneurs that they didn’t build their businesses but instead that they didn’t build this country’s infrastructure or educate themselves. Successful businesses wouldn’t exist, the logic goes, without those things that the government so altruistically gave them.

Whether he meant that people are not responsible for building their businesses or that they owe their success to government infrastructure projects, the statement is deeply troubling, and it gives us a window into the perverse attitude the president holds about private enterprise.

If, indeed, he meant to suggest that business owners aren’t responsible for building the infrastructure of this country, and that the government is, it betrays the most fundamental problem of his worldview. Namely, his belief that government drives growth and innovation, and, as such, it needs to be larger and more active to spur that growth.

For that to happen, we as a country must confiscate more of the fruits of success to pay for such a benevolent and essential government. They owe it to us, as their success is a result of public works.

The tragedy of that warped point of view is that private enterprise did, in fact, build those roads and pay for those teachers. The government doesn’t have a single penny that it didn’t get from private citizens.

The United States has the highest corporate taxes in the developed world, so business owners – even with all the loopholes and deductions they can find – are paying a huge amount in the way of taxes. They pay taxes on their own income. It is a nauseatingly over-cited fact (but a true one): The top 10 percent of wage earners pay roughly 70 percent of the taxes collected in this country.

But it goes beyond that. The general laborer who is in the lower tax brackets draws a paycheck in the private sector by working at these businesses, and the taxes they pay exist because a business was created that then hired the person. Every penny in the treasury originates because of the entrepreneurial spirit of the American people, either directly or indirectly.

So, yes, if you want to be technical, the logic used by President Barack Obama and liberals like Elisabeth Warren in Massachusetts is correct: Without those teachers to teach skills, and without those roads, businesses couldn’t thrive. But what they fail to either understand or acknowledge is that without the ingenuity and industriousness of entrepreneurs, the government wouldn’t even exist at all, and it certainly wouldn’t have any money to pay those teachers or pave those roads.

Entrepreneurs are already paying it forward. They do so by having created something that provides jobs for us. They do so by providing this government with trillions of dollars in taxes. They do so by producing things that make the lives of everyday citizens better and easier.

Of course we all benefit from public infrastructure, teachers, police and firefighters. Yes, our success is heavily reliant on them. But the government’s existence is entirely reliant on the business community, so being antagonistic toward their already titanic contribution to this country is incredibly offensive.

The irony is, if he was actually interested in spending money on roads and bridges, teachers and cops, than he would have willing partners on all sides of the political aisle. Those are things that virtually everyone believes the government should spend money on.

But instead we get massive new federal bureaucracies, huge new entitlements, subsidization of failure, disincentivization of work and the demonization of the productive class.

It shouldn’t be surprising that Obama views the system the way he does. He became president without ever participating in private enterprise. His entire frame of reference is in the public sector, so it shouldn’t come as a shock that his economic policies have failed.

Good businessmen do not automatically make good leaders, but having an awareness of what makes this country — and this government — prosperous is a good starting point, and a great deal better than what we have now.

Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.