'You Didn't Build That' and the Darkness of Collective Punishment

As Obama’s “you didn’t build that” quote is probed and analyzed, note that the idea of redistributing other people’s achievements is only the tip of an ideological iceberg.


Lest we take Obama’s words out of context and be accused of “swift-quoting,” let’s review the full passage. Speaking at a campaign stop in Roanoke, VA, on July 13, Barack Obama said:

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. The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet. The point is, when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.

Per a friend of mine with a Ph.D. in mathematics:

We scientists say that in order to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first build the universe — and that takes about four billion years. But that doesn’t mean we can’t build anything new from existing resources. So telling a businessman “you didn’t build that” is pure sophistry. Such phrases have always been a preamble to looting. Coming from the president, it’s chilling.

Apart from the simple untruth that “government created the Internet,” Obama’s words boil down to the collectivist bromide that the individual is nothing without the society and the state. As one would expect, Obama didn’t come up with it on his own. Standing on the shoulders of his collectivist predecessors, he ineptly restated Mussolini’s motto:


All individuals or groups are relative, only to be conceived in their relation to the State.

Benito’s fellow collectivist Adolf Hitler agrees:

Our nation can achieve permanent health only from within on the basis of the principle: The common interest before self-interest.

If the businessman “didn’t build that,” who did? Apparently, all of us did. And if the credit is equally shared, so must be the reward. Jackpot winners all, no more worries about paying the mortgage or filling the gas tank. This thrilled Obama’s voters during the 2008 election, as his speeches removed moral barriers protecting other people’s property, establishing a new morality of forced redistribution of wealth — previously known as looting.

But here’s the catch: everything in this world has a price. If all of us can be credited for someone else’s achievement, by the same logic, all of us can be punished for someone else’s failure. Just as all individual credit goes to the society as a whole, so does all the blame. And if the entire group, class, nation, or race can gain moral authority because some of its members did something right, the same standard grants the moral authority to blame any other group, class, nation, or race because some of its members did something wrong. In the history of collectivism this concept translated into wars, slavery, pogroms, terrorism, ethnic cleansing, expropriation of wealth, deportation, internment, resettlement, and genocide.


The two notions, collective achievement and collective punishment, are as inseparable as two sides of a coin.

But there’s more: if nothing is to your credit, then nothing is your fault. What is the cost of that bargain? In a seemingly fair trade-off, we lose our right to individual achievements but gain the right to blame others for our failures. Collectivism provides us with a sufficiently analgesic illusion of fairness. If you turn out to be a loser, it’s not because you are unqualified: on a whim, with objective standards removed, you can now self-righteously put the blame on those close to you, or on the unfair system, or even on the big wide (and deeply flawed) world.

Before you know it, your moral impulses are reduced to the tantrum of a toddler who breaks things and hits a babysitter; a teenager who curses at his family and blames the universe for his pimples; a graduating student of Marxism at the Occupy Wall Street encampment who vandalizes private property and blames capitalism for not providing him with a high-income job; an aging member of the “drug revolution” who blames The Man and The System for his depression; or the president of the United States who blames corporations and bank CEOs, modern technology and “messy democracy,” Fox News and all other media, the Japanese tsunami and the Arab Spring, as well as Bush, Reagan, Congress, the GOP, and the entire city of Washington for his lack of achievement.


Coincidentally, such is also the moral foundation of collectivist societies, from Cargo Cult followers to the so-called People’s Democracies. In the erstwhile USSR, the government redistributed not only the nation’s dwindling wealth; it redistributed successes and failures. All achievements were credited to the Party and its leaders, as well as to a centrally appointed regiment of “Heroes of Socialist Labor” who conspicuously “sacrificed for the common good.”  The failures were blamed on foreign aggressors, Western imperialism, enemies of the people, kulaks, saboteurs, corrupt bureaucracy, irresponsible middle management, selfish greed, and lack of proletariat consciousness, as well as on natural disasters and bad weather. Sound familiar?

Find the guilty, and the opportunistic politicians will come. The problem is, they come not to help you but to help themselves. The latest example is the current grievance-mongering U.S. government — a massive self-serving army of patented demagogues who have yet to improve one life or right a single wrong. In the final analysis, collectivism is a dead end. Releasing the floodgates of government corruption is only Act One in the drama of a declining nation.

Now that we have gotten to the bottom of it, let’s review Obama’s quote from this new perspective:


If you have failed, somebody along the line ruined it for you. There was a lousy teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unfair American system that caused you to fail. Somebody benefitted from your demise. If you’re a loser, it’s not your fault. Somebody else made that happen. The Titanic didn’t sink on its own. Corporations and insurance companies made a lot of money off of it, so they must be complicit. The point is, when we fail, we fail not only because of our individual shortcomings, but also because others have teamed up behind your backs. Vote for me — I’ll punish the guilty and give you what’s rightfully yours.

It turns out that “someone else made that happen” is merely a flip-side of “blame someone else.” One can’t exist without the other.

In contrast, the argument for individualism and competitive private enterprise cannot be “flipped,” not without distorting its nature and moral purpose. The statement “It’s my achievement and I have the right to what I earn” manifests only positive, objectively true human values.

Unlike its alternatives, capitalism doesn’t grow out of a dark, indiscernible mass of moral entanglements. And unlike crony capitalism — a corrupt monster created by government intrusion into the economy — free market capitalism is transparent. Just like the greatest invention of our time, the personal computer (brought to us by free enterprise), capitalism has a user-friendly interface: what you see is what you get.




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