Since I’m not at the paper any more, it fell to Cindi Scoppe to write this column that ran today, basically addressing the orgy of indignation among the libertarians who call themselves conservatives over President Obama’s unfortunate choice of words in explaining the painfully obvious fact that practically no one in our crowded, interdependent world achieves anything worthwhile alone:
A LOT OF what the president says and does is ripe for criticism. But what he said the other day about no one being an island, about how our parents and our communities and our teachers and mentors and, yes, our government all contributed to our success is not one of those things.
If you’re wondering who in the world would criticize such obvious commentary, it’s because you don’t recognize the full context of that bizarre, ridiculous, one hopes bungled quote that came in the middle of it: “If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.”…
Of course business owners built their businesses — unless they inherited them or bought them from someone who did. Their initiative and hard work and luck set them apart.
As important as parents are to our success, one sibling can create a multi-billion-dollar business while another languishes on welfare. As much as we need good teachers, even the best have some students who drop out of school. Although government policy can give some businesses a leg up, others can go bankrupt even with too-generous government grants.
That’s because some people have initiative, and some do not. Some people are creative, and some are not. Some people are smart, and some are not. And while the schools can affect which group any individual is in, government does not eliminate those basic differences.
At the same time though, the vast majority of people who own businesses would not have been able to do that if we didn’t have a monetary system and a court system and roads and police and other functions of government. The vast majority of people who have any sort of success would not have it in a world without government. In fact, they wouldn’t have it if not for the peculiar kind of government that our country embraced from the start: self-government.
Can, and should, our government be more efficient? Of course so. Is there room to debate whether the government should bail out the banks or the auto industry or help pay for our medical care? By all means. Is there a legitimate question as to whether taxes are too high or too low? Certainly.
But the vast majority of Americans would not have the lives we take for granted — lives that are inconceivably luxurious compared to the lives lived by the overwhelming majority of people throughout human history — if it weren’t for our flawed but better-than-any-alternatives government.
Seems to me Cindi was being slightly over-cautious in saying that only “the vast majority of people” would have gotten nowhere without the basic conditions — civil order, rule of law, basic infrastructure — that are provided through the processes we call “government.” I suppose there are some to whom that doesn’t apply, but very few. It’s even harder to think of anyone who accomplished anything worthwhile completely and utterly alone — without anyone, whether you’re talking about government or not.
I suppose there’s Robinson Crusoe — that is, until Friday came along. This reminds me of an economics exercise we did in high school. We had to suppose we were stranded on a desert island, and we had to allocate our resources — which included time, and effort — so as to survive. This much time building a shelter out of available materials meant that much less time spent gathering food. X amount of time spent making a tool that would facilitate building that shelter cuts the construction time, leaving more time to weave a net to make fishing easier, etc.
A castaway who is completely alone can create something useful — to him, anyway — without anyone else’s involvement. But a business, in our crowded society? Well, to start with, you have to have customers. And then, depending on your business, there are suppliers, and vendors providing services that it would be inefficient to perform yourself. And as you grow, there are employees who become essential to your further growth, etc. Without the willing participation of those often vast networks of people, you can work and create all you want, but you’re not getting anywhere.
The extreme libertarians would put government in another category from just “people.” But in our system, the government and the people are the same thing. “Government” is just the word for the set of arrangements that we have among us, the people, for handling certain things that are best handled that way, such as building roads or deepening a port or passing and enforcing the laws without which the concept of private property is meaningless.
In fact, if I had a quibble with Cindi’s column, it would be that, in her litany of things for which government is essential, she kept referring to government as “it.” As in, “It creates and maintains a monetary system,” and “It provides a civil justice system…”
Given the screwy way so many of our neighbors these days think of government, that can be misunderstood as government being some separate entity that provides certain things to us, the people. But it’s not that at all. A better word than “it” would be “we,” because government is simply the process through which we create and maintain a monetary system, provide a civil justice system, and so forth.
Government does not give or take away. It’s just the arrangements through which we, the people, do certain things that we decide, through our system of representative democracy, are best done that way.