By Ronald Bruce Meyer
(with a little help)
“You didn’t build that” is a quote from President Barack Obama during a 13 July 2012 campaign speech in Roanoke, Virginia. While it was intended to emphasize the role of government in growing American businesses, the sound bite was quickly taken out of context across the conservative political blogosphere, yielding a bipartisan debate on income taxes and other economic policy issues.
The actual quote comes amid a larger context. Imagine Republicans taking President Obama out of context! The idea is that we’re a nation, not a bunch of truly independent people, and we got where we are with a lot of help we don’t often acknowledge or even think about. Here is the quote in context—
There are a lot of wealthy, successful Americans who agree with me -- because they want to give something back. They know they didn’t -- look, 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. (Applause.)
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.
But let’s take the right-wing blogosphere at its (mistaken) word. At least one conservative small business owner responded, and I have a picture of him standing by his sign. The sign reads “Gaster Lumber & Hardware. I built this business without gov’t help. Obama can Kiss my ass. I’m Ray Gaster and I approve this message.” There is a Gaster Lumber & Hardware in Savannah Georgia, but to be fair it doesn’t matter if the annotated picture I’ve seen is real or not. I’m not picking on Ray Gaster: the mistaken idea of the Fox News audience is the same and proves the essential truth of “you didn’t build that” —
» Trademarked business name? Provided by the US government.
» Fair access to telephone networks? Provided by the US government.
» Fair access to the radio spectrum for his cellphone? Provided by the US government.
» Postal service? Built by the US government.
» Internet access? Built and ensured by the US government.
» Standard date and time? Provided by the US government.
» Access to ports to import goods to sell? Provided by the US government.
» Trade agreements for the import and export of goods? Provided by the US government.
» Standard currency for buying and selling goods and services? Provided by the US government.
» Weather reports? Provided by the US government.
» Road to your business? Built by state and US government.
» Social Security and Medicare when he retires? Ensured by the US government.
» Insured deposits at his bank? Provided by the US government.
» Protection from foreign enemies? Provided by the US government.
» Driving laws? Provided by local government.
» Road drainage and sewer system? Provided by local government.
» Fair electric rates? Provided by local government.
» Police to protect from theft and assault? Provided by local government.
» Fire protection? Provided by local government.
» Education system (and libraries) for a literate work force? Provided by local government.
» Safe buildings in which to do business? Ensured by local government.
» Zoning in which to do business? Ensured by local government.
» Courts to adjudicate disputes? Provided by local, state and US government.
» Politicians to appeal to when you have a complaint? Provided by local, state and US government.
Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. famously wrote, “Taxes are what we pay for civilized society.” Maybe people like Mr. Gaster should send a thank-you note to the “gov’t” with his tax bill. At least he should be grateful.
Copyright © 2012 Ronald Bruce Meyer.
Read about Skeptic Society founder Michael Shermer, French statesman Cardinal Richelieu, evolutionist Stephen Jay Gould, Cosmonaut Gherman S. Titov, Bard of Baltimore H. L. Mencken, Roger Williams and freedom of conscience, feminist Margaret Sanger and more …