The Week in Review: 'You didn't build that'

Every week, NPRI President Andy Matthews writes a column for NPRI's week-in-review email. If you are not getting our emails, which contain our latest commentaries and news stories, you can sign up here to receive them. Just enter your email in the box on the top right.

For today's week-in-review email, Andy notes how President Obama's "you didn't build that" line diminishes the accomplishments of America's business owners.

'You didn't build that'

I'm in beautiful Northern Nevada this week for a number of reasons, one of which, as I mentioned last time, is to officially open NPRI's new Reno office on Aug. 1.

But another reason I'm here is to spend some time meeting with several members of the Institute's Board of Directors as well as some other NPRI supporters. I always enjoy these meetings because it gives me a chance to talk with a number of individuals I admire greatly - intelligent, hard-working citizens, many of whom have achieved success by building thriving businesses.

Wait, what's that you say? Oh, right. Silly me.

As President Obama helpfully informed us recently, none of the people who built those businesses ... actually built those businesses. Here's the president, speaking a couple weeks ago in Roanoke, Va.:

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.

Lots of commentators have already taken their whacks at the president over this instant classic, but I thought I'd offer my two cents. First, the obvious reason why the president's comment is absurd: We all have access to roads. We all have had teachers who have helped us along the way. But not all of us have built successful businesses. Clearly, those who have done so possessed something - intelligence, work ethic, ambition - that set them apart. It's unfortunate that the president either doesn't recognize this or is so casually dismissive of it.

That said, I think there's another angle to this that hasn't drawn enough attention, and that's what I'd like to address here.

Imagine for a moment that Sasha Obama, the president's 11-year-old daughter, came home from school one day excited because she'd passed her spelling test. Now imagine the president turning to his daughter and saying, "Well, I have to tell you, sweetie: You didn't pass that test. Someone drove your bus to school. Someone made the pencil you used to write in your answers. You can't take credit for that."

Or try another example. Let's say the president, upon welcoming the NBA champion Miami Heat to the White House for a photo-op, were to tell them: "You know, it's nice to have you here today. But I have to tell you, guys: You didn't win that championship. Someone else flew the team jet that took you to your games. You had a gym teacher at some point who made you put in some extra time with the jump rope." Or imagine him telling a musical performer who'd recently won a Grammy for best song: "You didn't sing that. Someone manufactured the microphone you used. You had someone pour you a glass of water when your throat got sore."

You get the point.

These kinds of statements, of course, would be absurd. And I think it's a given that President Obama would never say anything of this sort - at least not to his daughter, the Miami Heat or a Grammy winner. Why? Because it's quite obvious that the fact that those people received help at some point does not in any way diminish what they have achieved.

But in the president's mind, the fact of receiving help in life does diminish the accomplishments of America's business owners. It's a real shame, not only because our nation's entrepreneurs deserve every bit as much credit as anyone else who achieves success, but also because, as society's chief job creators, those business owners do far more than anyone else to drive economic growth and, thus, provide opportunities to their fellow citizens. Athletes and other performers - whose accomplishments would, no doubt, garner acclaim from the president - provide us with entertainment. But entrepreneurs battle long odds to find ways to provide for our most basic needs and desires as human beings.

It's quite telling that President Obama chooses to single out the accomplishments of business owners for such disparagement. Indeed, it is because of their role in our economy that they draw his ire and resentment. When one sees government as the rightful driver of economic activity, he instinctively sees private enterprise as a rival, if not an outright enemy.

The problem with this, of course, is that government simply isn't up to the task. The public sector will never be able to replace the private sector as the creator of economic prosperity - a point the president's own policies continue to prove.

Oh, and if you disagree with me, that's fine. After all, I didn't write this.

See you next time!

Andy Matthews
NPRI President

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