“If you’re successful, you didn’t get there on your own.”
“If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.”
– President Obama
Conservative commentators jumped on this. Fortunately, the more enlightened ones at least acknowledged the notion that government and society support businesses and individuals. Pulitzer-prize winner and Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer writes: “infrastructure has been consensually understood to be a core function of government.” David Brooks, another sensible conservative voice, writes that “there were many different chefs of the stew that is you: parents, friends, teachers, ancestors, mentors and, of course, Oprah Winfrey.”
However, Krauthammer and Brooks seize the opportunity to distort the discussion with typical (conservative) arguments. More troubling is that these misleading arguments are increasingly entrenched in today’s political discourse.
The first is that creativity and individual effort only thrive when there is limited government. Krauthammer writes that “Limited government … encourages and celebrates character, independence, energy, hard work as the foundations of a free society and a thriving economy — precisely the virtues Obama discounts and devalues.” Brooks’ more nuanced argument is that the only way to achieve success is to “regard yourself as the sole author of all your future achievements.” Where did they get such an idea? I think some of it has roots in works like Hayek’s influential 1944 book The Road to Serfdom. Hayek wrote that 1) socialism would diminish the impetus for work, and 2) that free enterprise was the only way to achieve political and economic freedom.
The truth is that Hayek was writing against the wartime nationalization of British industries which he felt would result in a centrally-planned state like Nazi Germany. Other authors like Von Mises also wrote in a similar context. Yes, central planning may diminish creativity and individual effort, but what liberals (and Obama) today advocate is certainly not centrally planned business activity. Surely free enterprise (which is what is actually responsible for creativity and individual effort) does not only take place when government is limited.
The second type of argument is that government has no place or role in civil society. Krauthammer states: “the most formative, most important influence on the individual is not government. It is civil society, those elements of the collectivity that lie outside government.” Another commentator, Richard Grant of Forbes, claims that Obama’s statements “fail to distinguish between government and civil society.” He also disagrees with Obama’s “clear insinuation that government was essential for success in business and perhaps life in general.”
In reality, while government and civil society are conceivably mutually exclusive (as Krauthammer argues), they are inextricably linked because government exists to support civil society. Even Milton Friedman, the classical economist who inspired a generation of “free-market” advocates, clearly acknowledges, in his 1962 treatise Capitalism and Freedom, the role of government: To enforce the law and property rights, to correct “natural monopolies”, and to minimize “neighborhood effects.” “Natural monopolies” demand that government build infrastructure like railways and highways. “Neighborhood effects” demand that certain services are provided, for example basic education to “instill a common set of values and … a minimum degree of literacy and knowledge” to support “a stable and democratic society.”
Today, liberals are fast losing the argument about the role of government. It’s certainly hard to argue with the seemingly newfound Romantic notions of the individual as the center of personal achievement and of individual voluntary contributions, and associations, supporting civil society. But perhaps recognizing that government has the important role of not just supporting, but rather getting everyone to the same starting point — Tocqueville’s “equality of conditions” — will dispel the notion that government is incompatible with individual effort and a thriving civil society.