President Obama wants you to know that he really does believe that entrepreneurs built their own businesses -- but they need the federal government's help.
Earlier this month, it sure sounded like Obama said successful businessmen didn't build their own business. And if you look closely at his words in their full context, they reveal not simple disdain for entrepreneurs, but the true nature of Obamanomics: government as a helicopter mom.
Washington shouldn't destroy industry or leave it be, in Obama's view, but should steer business through subsidies and regulations.
Obama told a crowd of supporters in Roanoke on July 13, "If you've been successful, you didn't get there on your own." On its face, this is uncontroversial, even to a die-hard libertarian. You needed your parents, your investors, your employees and your customers. But Obama made this point as an argument for higher income taxes. So when he added, "If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help," it's clear he meant the federal government.
"Somebody helped create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive," Obama continued. "Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you've got a business -- you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen."
I think Obama's "that," which the businessman didn't build, refers to the "American system." He means the government-created infrastructure -- literal infrastructure like roads and bridges, and figurative infrastructure like teachers and schools -- that make success and risk-taking more possible. If his infrastructure were just roads, bridges, teachers and schools, he would find little argument.
But Obama doesn't need to raise taxes to pay for roads and bridges and schools and teachers. The basic core elements of the government system could be funded at much lower tax rates, and today, they are mostly funded by other taxes besides the income tax that Obama wants to raise. The figurative infrastructure that Obama wants to finance with tax hikes is a far more ambitious project, expanding the federal government's role far beyond its basic functions -- and probably far beyond its capabilities.
"I'm not going to see us gut the investments that grow our economy," Obama said in Roanoke. Look at the spending programs and tax credits Obama has called "investments." They include roads and bridges, yes, but also bailouts of Wall Street and Detroit, plus taxpayer-backed loan guarantees for exporters. He's talking about Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and other government-supported programs that steer private investment toward politically favored sectors and businesses.
To contain the damage of "you didn't build that," Obama cut a television ad this week, arguing he really does appreciate small-business men. "We need to stand behind them," Obama said, "investing in education, training, roads and bridges, research and technology." We know what government "investments" Obama likes to make in "research and technology." His stimulus created taxpayer-backed loan guarantees for the likes of Solyndra, grants for geothermal energy, tax credits for alternative fuel, Internet subsidies, computer subsidies and so on. Obama still lauds George W. Bush's law forcing people to buy more expensive high-tech light bulbs than they want to. Obama wants to require our utilities to use more expensive wind and solar energy.
When Obama says "we need to stand behind" businessmen, he means we need to subsidize them. We need to force people to buy what they are selling. And we need to bail them out when they fail. This is the "amazing American system," in Obama's eyes. And it's one many Americans do not like.
Most entrepreneurs I speak with tell me that profit was a necessary, but not sufficient motive for them to launch their enterprise. You start your own business, invent your own product and risk your fortune not only to make money, but also because it's gratifying. It makes you happy to provide a good or service that people want enough that they're willing to pay for it.
Government subsidies can help a businessman make profits, but they diminish the moral value of entrepreneurship. The character of free enterprise -- mutual benefit from consensual exchange -- is stripped by mandates, bailouts and handouts.
As Obama -- like Bush before him -- increases Washington's "investments" and support for business, he crowds out opportunities for free enterprise. If your competitors are all subsidized, you'd better hop on the gravy train, too.
Obama sees this sprawling network of government support for business as the "amazing American system." Obama didn't build that system, but he's making it worse.
Timothy P.Carney, The Examiner's senior political columnist, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. His column appears Monday and Thursday, and his stories and blog posts appear on washingtonexaminer.com.