If Bartlett’s ever puts together a collection of insultingly deflating quotations, it should include President Barack Obama’s take on business success before a crowd in Virginia the other day: “If you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own.”
Obama was explaining — as is his wont — why the rich should pay more taxes. They might have had a great teacher. Or they drive on public roads and bridges. “If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that,” the president explained, apparently in the serene confidence that he wasn’t speaking to an audience bristling with proud business owners. “Somebody else made that happen.”
The Obama theory of entrepreneurship is that behind every successful businessman, there is a successful government. Everyone is helpless without the state, the great protector, builder, and innovator. Everything is ultimately a collective enterprise. Individual initiative is only an ingredient in the more important work when “we do things together.”
The Obama riff is a direct steal from Elizabeth Warren, the Democratic Senate candidate in Massachusetts who sent liberal hearts aflutter by throwing the same wet towel on the notion of individual success a few months ago. The Obama/Warren view is a warrant for socialization of the proceeds of success. Behind its faux sophistication is a faculty-lounge disdain for business, and all those who make more than tenured professors by excelling at it. Behind its smiley we’re-all-in-it-together façade is a frank demand: You owe us.