The "you didn't build that" passage of President Obama's Roanoke speech has gone viral on the Internet, with the Republican National Committee posting posters of Steve Jobs, the Wright Brothers, and Alexander Graham Bell. The Wall Street Journal has an editorial calling it "the line of the year."
Here's the full passage:
There are a lot of wealthy, successful Americans who agree with me -- because they want to give something back. They know they didn't -- look, if you've been successful, you didn't get there on your own. You didn't get there on your own. I'm always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart. There are a lot of smart people out there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else. Let me tell you something -- there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there. (Applause.)
If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you've got a business -- you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn't get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.
The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.
It is a bizarre passage. I do know a lot of successful people who credit their success not only to their own selves but, as President Obama put it, to "some help." That observation might draw objections from fierce individualists, but it might not have generated the kind of storm that Mr. Obama's comments have. Where Mr. Obama went really far off the rails, in my view, was in not mentioning help from God or from parents, but in describing the "help" entirely in terms of government. A "great teacher" — most people will think of a public school teacher. The creators of this American system — the founding fathers. "Invested in roads and bridges" — municipal bondholders? The Department of Transportation? Al Gore who invented the Internet.
(Never mind that there are lots of people who have the same great teachers, roads, bridges, and the Internet and who, for whatever reason, do not choose to build businesses.)
What might have been a passage to suggest humility by successful entrepreneurs who may have been blessed by God with certain talents or with supportive families wound up instead as a passage of consummate arrogance, in which Obama substituted the enabling power of the state for the power of God.
I realize that the readers of this site may have varying views of God and include some who don't much believe in God at all. That's fine; we don't do a lot of theology around here. One can believe that blessings come from God and still believe in free will and in success that is earned through hard work and, as Mr. Obama puts it, "individual initiative."
Presidents say an awful lot of words in public, and they sometimes blurt out things they shouldn't say, or didn't mean to say. Earlier in the same speech, Mr. Obama said "paralegals" would attend to fainting crowd members, when he meant "paramedics."
This passage, though, is telling, not just for Mr. Obama's urging that successful entrepreneurs be humble and thank others for their success. The key to it is that the ones Mr. Obama says should be thanked are not God or family but rather government — the government of which he is the chief executive. As almost always is the case for Mr. Obama, it's all about him.