Long before President Obama launched a thousand conservative attacks ads by telling a Virginia audience, "If you've got a business -- you didn't build that," Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren raised thousands of liberal dollars with a very similar riff at an Andover, Mass., campaign event last year.
"You built a factory out there? Good for you," Warren says in a video that quickly went viral on YouTube. "But I want to be clear: You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for; you hired workers the rest of us paid to educate; ... You didn't have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory, and hire someone to protect against this, because of the work the rest of us did."
Why did Obama's speech so enrage conservative Americans? Why did Warren's speech so inspire liberals? Research by New York University Stern School of Business professor Jonathan Haidt suggests it is because liberals and conservatives have very different notions about one of the key moral foundations of politics: fairness.
For liberals, fairness is about equality. Think Occupy Wall Street's calls for higher taxes on the top 1 percent, and Obama's repeated assertion that the rich need to pay their "fair share" in taxes.
For conservatives, fairness is all about just deserts. People should be rewarded (and punished) in proportion to what they contribute, even if that policy guarantees unequal outcomes.
Haidt, who told me he has voted Democrat in every presidential election in his lifetime, and who contributed to Obama in 2008, believes that the Warren-Obama fairness argument will prove ineffective.
First, it is not intuitive. Most Americans, upon seeing a poor person, do not assume that his liberty has been violated. But, liberals would argue, in order to experience true liberty, everyone must be given access to health care, education and housing, among other things. Although there is some logic to this, Haidt said in a phone interview, "It does not have any appeal to the gut."
The conservative definition of liberty, however, especially the "Don't tread on me" brand adopted by the Tea Party, does appeal directly to our moral intuitions. When Americans see Obama taking their tax money and giving it to bankrupt solar companies like Solyndra, that hits almost everyone's unfairness sweet spot.
The second problem with the Warren-Obama "you didn't build that" argument is that it employs an opposition between entrepreneurs and the rest of society that is foreign to most Americans. Just look at Warren's rhetoric. On one side she has "You built a factory out there ... you moved your goods ... you hired workers ..." On the other side she has "the roads the rest of us paid for ... workers the rest of us paid to educate ... the work the rest of us did."
Such an "us versus them" mentality can be effective in politics (it plays on a different moral foundation Haidt has identified: loyalty), but in this case, it presupposes that voters see American society the same way hard core liberals do. "To the extent that there are people who really do see the rich as a group that is oppressing the rest of us, then the motive is to band together and take them down," Haidt said. "So depending on how you see American society, the Elizabeth Warren argument might resonate. But most people don't see the world that way."
Mitt Romney has an easier case to make. Instead of getting into details, all Romney needs to do is praise entrepreneurs and the people that create things. "In America we have a lot less envy than in some European countries with respect to self-made men," Haidt said.
Obama has since chosen Warren to be one of the prime-time speakers on the night of the Democratic National Convention's keynote address. Apparently, he does not share Haidt's assessment on the efficacy of the "you didn't build that" argument. We'll see who is right this November.
Conn Carroll (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a senior editorial writer for The Washington Examiner. Follow him on Twitter at @conncarroll.