President Obama’s defenders are all whining today about a speech Mitt Romney gave yesterday accurately attacking Obama for saying last Friday, “If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.”
Talking Points Memo‘s Benjy Sarlin complains:
Sounds pretty bad — and it is, if you leave out the sentences directly before and after, which make it crystal clear Obama wasn’t talking about building businesses at all. The “that” in “you didn’t build that” referred to roads, bridges, infrastructure, education, emergency services and law and order — all services that protect and enable business owners along the way toward creating a successful operation.
This isn’t a new argument. Not only has Obama himself used a version of it countless times in his stump speech, a similar speech by Elizabeth Warren, now running for Senate in Massachusetts, went viral in 2011.
Elizabeth Warren wasn’t the first to advance this argument either. In fact, the argument goes to the core of modern liberalism and the New Deal. In his 2004 book, The Second Bill of Rights: FDR’S Unfinished Revolution and Why We Need It More than Ever, Obama White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs Administrator Cass Sunstein recounts:
In a nutshell, the New Deal helped vindicate a simple idea: No one really opposes government intervention. Even the people who most loudly denounce government interference depend on it every day. Their own right do not come from minimizing government but are a product of government.
Roosevelt’s attack on the idea of laissez-faire had a long legacy. Jeremy Bentham, the father of utilitarianism, was a great believer in private property. But he also said that “there is no natural property” because “property is entirely the creature of the law.” … In Bentham’s account, “property and law are born together and must die together. Before the laws there was no property; take away the laws, all property ceases.”
This basic claim was an important strain of legal realism, the most influential movement in early-twentieth-century American law. The realists, most notably law professors Robert Hale and Morris Cohen, insisted that markets and property depend on legal rules. What people have is not a reflection of nature or custom, and voluntary choices are only part of the picture. Government choices are crucial. Ownership rights are legal creations. … The realists urged that government and law are omnipresent – that if some people have a lot and others have a little, law and legal coercion are a large part of the reason.
Or to paraphrase Obama, “If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. The government made that happen.”
But the logic of this argument leads to policy conclusions most Americans reject. In a later chapter, Sunstein explains why FDR failed to get his Second Bill of Rights enshrined in the Constitution:
For many decades, what is centrist in Europe falls on the far left in the United States. … Socialism in any form has had little appeal in America, and a large part of the reason lies in the fact that the nation of “class conflict” has usually fallen on deaf ears. It is fully acceptable for American officials to argue for “opportunities for all,” defend “compassionate conservatism,” and even urge a “war on poverty.” But it is not acceptable for American politicians to claim that economic classes are engaged in battle with one another and that voters should take one side or another. … Perhaps America is exceptional in its hostility to thinking of political like in terms of class. If this is so, the absence of a second bill of rights from American constitutional understandings might be an outgrowth of the absence of class-based thinking in the United States.
This last paragraph is dead on. Redistributive-class-warfare thinking is foreign to Americans. Which is probably why we saw Romney say this yesterday:
You understand, of course, what’s going on. What he is saying is his justification for raising taxes higher and higher, because government needs more. … You heard that story by the way, he is trying to take work out of welfare requirement. It is changing the nature of America, changing the nature of what the Democrats have fought for, and Republicans have fought for. In the past, people of both parties understood that encouraging achievement, encouraging success, encouraging people to lift themselves as high as they can, encouraging entrepreneurs, celebrating success instead of attacking it and denigrating, makes America strong. That’s the right course for this country. His course is extraordinarily foreign.
Far more important than any tax return or college transcript, the debate Obama and Romney are having over the extent to which government ought to try and control the economy is one we’ve been having since the country was founded.