The furor over President Barack Obama's recent speech arguing that the wealthy should be willing to pay more taxes because their success is enabled by government -- reduced by critics to the sound bite, "if you have a business, you didn't build that" -- raises vital questions about the market, government, success and societal obligation.
The president's defenders claim he was merely stating the simple fact that no one succeeds entirely on his or her own. Yet, even so, the speech offered a government-centric vision that downplays both individual effort and the role of private social structures.
Of course no business was built in a vacuum; entrepreneurs do benefit from publicly financed highways and bridges, police and fire protection, schools and courts. But very few Americans of any political persuasion would insist that business owners should not help pay for these functions.
In his speech, Obama said that he is always struck by people who think they succeeded because they are smart or worked especially hard: There are, he pointed out, many other smart and hardworking people.
At first glance, this seems irrelevant to his pro-government argument: Access to public resources is the same for everyone (barring favoritism), so that hardly explains why some smart, hardworking individuals do better than others. Clearly, what Obama meant is that economic high achievers do not have an absolute moral right to all the fruit of their labor, because their good fortune is a matter of luck as well as merit.
Does he have a point? Yes. Obama's detractors cite famous innovators such as Thomas Edison and the Wright brothers as examples of accomplishment made possible by indefatigable labor, energy and ability.
But the real story is more complicated. The Wrights were the first to achieve a major breakthrough toward which many other aviation pioneers were working. They also benefitted from government contracts at a time when aviation was not yet commercially viable. While Edison's brilliance is not in question, most of his work consisted of improving on earlier inventions, and he was not above stealing others' ideas or using disinformation to undermine competitors. One of his rivals and former partners, the maverick genius Nikola Tesla, died in poverty and obscurity -- a sobering reminder that markets do not always reward justly.
The belief that successful people are entirely self-made can lead to a dangerous hubris and callousness. A segment of the modern-day American right, exemplified by followers of the philosopher-novelist Ayn Rand, whose heroes owe no debt to society or family, is prone to this error.
But Obama did not merely correct such excess. His remarks, even in context, seem to portray achievement as almost entirely the product of blind luck and government beneficence. (Never mind that, without ability and hard work, no amount of either will help.) That's an attitude fraught with danger, particularly at the upper levels of government. It can lead to the view that all property rights exist only on society's sufferance -- which could justify virtually unlimited government power.
On the other hand, while business could not exist without a government infrastructure, government is sustained by business-generated wealth. Entrepreneurs "give back" to society not only in taxes but in products that improve our lives -- and in charity. While individual success is aided by public institutions, private associations such as family and community often play a larger role.
Obama is not a quasi-communist; he is just a liberal. Yet at a time when more than 40 percent of our gross domestic product is spent by government, we should be asking how much government is too much. Obama's speech suggests that his instinct is for more, not less.