“We built it” doesn’t mean much when the “it” depends on so many things built by society

The people carrying the “We built it” signs on the floor of the Republican Convention are not referring to the same “thing” to which President Obama referred when he rhetorically said “You didn’t build that” to business owners in a speech weeks ago.

The “We build it” standard bearers are talking about their businesses and wealth.

What Obama means are the roads and airports that transport goods and services to and from the businesses; the electrical grids delivering electrical power to run the lights; the public education system that trained most of the employees; the police force and army that protect the business from civil disturbances; the system of laws and business customs that ensure marketplace consistency and a stable economic environment. He also meant that some businesses depend on special grants of government property such as land and airwaves; others depend on advantageous tax codes and tariff laws.

As I have written before, building on philosopher Daniel N. Robinson’s Praise and Blame: Moral Realism and Its Application, the people who built their “its” don’t even deserve that much credit for their work, whether the “it” is Apple or a mom-and-pop provider of IT services.  A lot, and maybe most, of their success stems more from luck than anything else.

Here’ some of what that luck comprises:

  • Mental or physical talent with which one is born. If you have it, you will be able to do something naturally that most others have to struggle to learn. Even if you work hard to hone that talent, remember that someone with less talent could work just as hard and not accomplish as much. Wouldn’t he or she be just as deserving of reward?
  • Social-economic standing of your family: Over the 200+ year history of the United States there has been very little social mobility—which means people moving up or down from the class in which they were born—and recent studies show that we have less mobility today than ever before. As a brief look at Mitt Romney and his family substantiates, rich families can pay for lessons, send kids to specialty camps, pay for private tutors and educational consultants, contribute sums to prestigious schools, call friends of friends of friends to introduce children to influential people in their chosen careers and finance business or artistic ventures. Middle class families can do some of these things and poor families very few, if any.
  • Family’s emotional situation: The individual has no say in whether she or he ends up in a loving, stable family or in a family of drug addicts.
  • Secular conditions, referring to the social and economic conditions of the era: My favorite example of the impact of social conditions on individual success is Willie Mays, on everyone’s short list of the greatest baseball player of all time, who would have been a field slave if born 100 years earlier.
  • The value society puts on your talent: Bankers, attorneys, neurosurgeons, professional athletes, business owners—all these people get paid more than high school teachers, players in classical symphony orchestras and plumbers, who may work as hard and be just as talented in their field. A plumber could work just as hard as an investment banker does and make far less money. Does that make the plumber less praiseworthy than the banker?
  • Just plain old “luck” luck, such as the luck to be in an intersection 10 seconds before or after an accident or for your professor to bring you onto his long-term research team.

The argument behind “You didn’t build that” answers the Republican claim that we shouldn’t tax so-called wealth creators because it shows how little their efforts really contributed to creating the wealth that they are enjoying.

Another way to look at the issue is to consider the value of protection and stability that government provides to each individual.  If your house is worth $150,000, you are getting protection and stability (and water, sewer service and other utilities) to support $150,000.  If your house is worth $500,000, the protection and security is worth more and so you should be paying higher taxes.

The “We built it” crowd likes to confuse the issue by falsely saying we have a high tax rate (we don’t—it’s historically low) and then blaming that rate and our deficit on programs for the undeserving.  This argument confuses two distinct issues:

  1. What constitutes the minimum standard of living, education and healthcare that every person deserves by virtue of being a human being in an advanced civilization?
  2. Who will pay for the goods and services that government provides?

No matter where one stands on the first issue, keep in mind that the major plank in the economic program of Mitt Romney and the Republicans is to make the poor and middle class pay even more for government than they already do, while the wealthy pay even less. 

One comment on ““We built it” doesn’t mean much when the “it” depends on so many things built by society
  1. Jeri Johnson says:

    Sorry, but those things built by society were first dependent on private sector prosperity.

    It is more than a bit circular to claim otherwise.

    Said another way, the source of prosperity is the private sector, while one source of limited prosperity are the taxes levied against prosperity.

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