“You didn’t build that”: A footnote

This past Friday night at a campaign stop in Roanoke President Obama stated his teaching in a form that echoes Elizabeth Warren. Video of Obama’s speech is accessible here; video of the Elizabeth Warren original is accessible here.

Obama appeared to be speaking from the heart when he made his now famous remarks. They seem to provide a true insight into his deepest beliefs. Obama said:

There are a lot of wealthy, successful Americans who agree with me — because they want to give something back. They know they didn’t — look, if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own. You didn’t get there on your own. I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart. There are a lot of smart people out there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else. Let me tell you something — there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there.

Obama continued:

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.

Everyone and his brother have commented on these remarks. The remarks are striking. Attention must be paid. I had my say in “The Obamaian persuasion in American politics.” Charles Krauthammer glossed them orally on the Fox News Special Report in what NRO declared an epic takedown. Rich Lowry devoted a column to them, as did James Antle at the Spectator and Michael Barone at the Examiner. Yesterday both John Sununu and Mitt Romney weighed in with perceptive comments of their own.

And yet, and yet. To borrow from Lincoln, “we have not yet reached the whole.” Not that anything said so far has erred, either in the significance or purport of Obama’s remarks, but we have not yet done them full justice.

Obama’s remarks support his demand for higher income taxes. Making his case, Obama seeks to undermine the claim of right with which individuals hold their property, their income, their wealth. Under Obama’s doctrine, all arise from the collective support of the government. They are not the fruit of the individual’s labor.

Under Obama’s doctrine, there is no just limit on the power of the government to take the individual’s property. The property isn’t that man’s alone; he alone did not earn it. What the government does not take from the individual by taxes or regulation remains his conditionally, on the sufferance of the state.

No teaching could be more foreign to the founding principles of the United States than Obama’s doctrine. To take one example, Madison’s famous Federalist Number 10, for example, speaks of the “diversity in the faculties of man, from which the rights of property originate.”

The protection of these faculties [that is, securing the right to liberty, including the right to keep the fruits of one's honest industry] is the first object of government. From the protection of different and unequal faculties of acquiring property, the possession of different degrees and kinds of property immediately results.

The right of property is referred to over and over again in the words of the founders as directed to the fruit of one’s labor. Thus Jefferson in his First Inaugural Address enjoins the government to restrain men from injuring one another but also to “leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement” and not “take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned.”

And Lincoln applied the principles of the founders to the question of slavery. Referring to the arguments circulating in support of the supposed justice of slavery, Lincoln held:

They are the arguments that kings have made for enslaving the people in all ages of the world. You will find that all the arguments in favor of king-craft were of this class; they always bestrode the necks of the people, not that they wanted to do it, but because the people were better off for being ridden. That is their argument, and this argument of the Judge [i.e., Stephen Douglas] is the same old serpent that says you work and I eat, you toil and I will enjoy the fruits of it. Turn in whatever way you will—whether it come from the mouth of a King, an excuse for enslaving the people of his country, or from the mouth of men of one race as a reason for enslaving the men of another race, it is all the same old serpent …

“[I]t is all the same old serpent[.]” As we say here annually on Independence Day, thank you, Mr. Lincoln.

NOTE: My comments here follow chapter 2 of Thomas West’s invaluable Vindicating the Founders: Race, Sex, Class, and Justice in the Origins of America. Professor West compiles a few of the documents quoted in chapter 2 here.

UPDATE: Unlike John Sununu, I stand by Sununu’s comments on Obama’s remarks.

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