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The Shoulders of Giants

Obama didn’t build “You didn’t build that.”


Who built “You didn’t build that”? Not President Obama, or his speechwriting team, or even Elizabeth Warren, the leftist Massachusetts Senate candidate who’s struck similar themes. Blogger William Jacobsondiscovers what may be the ur-text, and it dates from 2004:

There is no such thing as a self-made man. Every businessman has used the vast American infrastructure, which the taxpayers paid for, to make his money. He did not make his money alone. He used taxpayer infrastructure. He got rich on what other taxpayers had paid for: the banking system, the Federal Reserve, the Treasury and Commerce Departments, and the judicial system, where nine-tenths of cases involve corporate law. These taxpayer investments support companies and wealthy investors. There are no self-made men! The wealthy have gotten rich using what previous taxpayers have paid for. They owe the taxpayers of this country a great deal and should be paying it back.

The source, as with so much in left-wing politics these days, is George Lakoff, the University of California linguist who is the Democratic left’s leading light on questions of cognition and rhetoric. That passage comes from “Don’t Think of an Elephant!: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate: The Essential Guide for Progressives,” the only book we can think of with an imperative title, an imperative subtitle and a nominative sub-subtitle.

The central problem with Lakoff’s argument is that his idea of a “self-made man” is a straw man. A self-made man is a successful man who succeeded by dint of his own effort. When he says there’s “no such thing,” he’s engaging in the sophistry of strained literalism, pretending that a man can be self-made only if his own effort is a sufficient condition for success. One might as well say there’s no such thing as a self-made man because we all have parents, or because God created us, or because we are the product of millions of years of evolution, or because today’s innovators stand on the shoulders of giants in the private economy.

That last point is crucial. No one denies that people alive today owe a debt to the past, but Lakoff and his fellow progressives seem to be under the misimpression that government is the only means by which we receive that sort of inheritance. The great industrialists of the 19th and 20th centuries might have paid a lot of taxes, but that wasn’t their primary contribution to the world of today.

Still, at least Lakoff gives them credit for some contribution. That paragraph refers six times to “taxpayers,” a word that never appears in Obama’s July 13 speech. Lakoff thus acknowledges, if only implicitly, the economic truth that it is the private sector that supports the government rather than the other way around. For Obama, it’s teachers all the way down.


Associated PressGeorge Lakoff tries not to think of an elephant.

The basic substantive problem with the Lakoff-Obama argument is that it blurs the distinction between an uncontroversial proposition (government is necessary) and a highly disputed one (government of its current size and scope is necessary and may even be insufficient). The ability to blur such distinction is a useful skill for a politician; the best way to accomplish something controversial is to persuade people you’re doing something uncontroversial.

But rhetorical tropes like “There is no such thing as a self-made man” and “If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that” do just the opposite: They call attention to the way in which the progressive ideology goes against the American grain. Americans believe in rugged individualism and self-determination, and it is foolish for a national politician like Obama to mock those values.

It is not necessarily foolish for an academic-cum-commentator like Lakoff to do so, and in fact such an approach has been very good for him. But he need only appeal to people (including politicians) who share his ideology. That’s why politicians who do would be wise to look skeptically at his advice.

BuzzFeed.com reports that Brad Woodhouse, the Democratic National Commitee’s communications director, “outlined an all-out response to Mitt Romney’s attack on President Obama over his ‘You didn’t build this’ line–which the president and independent fact checkers have said has been taken out of context.”

You’d think they’d just let this rest and come up with a better way of making the argument for big government. That line about “independent fact checkers”–that is, journalists–is a giveaway as to why they haven’t. They’re listening to people they think are authoritative, who insist Obama said nothing wrong. It turns out that, just like Lakoff, they think their audience consists of people who already agree with them.

The Politics of Condescension 
The New York Times has a pro-gun-control piece by retired Illinois policeman Michael Black, which unwittingly illuminates one reason Americans are suspicious of gun control. Check out this anecdote:

Illinois is the only state that does not allow ordinary citizens to carry concealed firearms. A few years back, I was visiting my father at the laundromat where he worked, when one of the regulars, who knew I was a cop, asked if I was “strapped.” When I said yes, he complained that he should have the right to carry a gun, too, since he was “a law-abiding citizen.” I’d heard this knucklehead spout off about minorities on numerous occasions and didn’t think he was a good candidate to be packing a weapon in public, though in many states, he could have been.

Black gives us no reason to think the man wasn’t a law-abiding citizen; the cop just didn’t like some of the things the civilian had said. Perhaps the objections were well-founded, but to restrict the man’s freedom for that reason would offend the First Amendment, never mind the Second.

A similar sort of elitism is evident in a blog post by The New Yorker’s John Cassidy: “When Bill Moyers, Keith Olbermann, Mayor Bloomberg, and Rupert Murdoch are all in favor of something–in this case, tougher gun laws–and there’s still no chance of it being enacted, you can rest assured that forces other than reason and partisan politics are involved.”

We guess that four-man list is meant to be ideologically inclusive. It isn’t really. Except for Murdoch, everyone on it is far to the left, at least on social issues. But here’s an even bigger problem: Why should anyone assume that two media figures and two media magnates are somehow broadly representative of American opinion?

Or check out this column from the Times’s Gail Collins:

Right now you are probably asking yourself: “What would it be like to live in a place with an unemployment rate of 1 percent?”

Me, too! So I went to Williston, N.D., to find out. There are certain things that journalists do as a public service because you, the noble reader, are probably not going to do them for yourself–like attending charter revision meetings or reading the autobiography of Tim Pawlenty. Going to Williston is sort of in this category. The people are lovely, but you’re talking about a two-hour drive from Minot.

OK, we realize she’s probably trying to be cute by acting like an exaggeratedly stereotypical East Coast elitist. But the stereotype comes across more clearly than the exaggeration.