On July 4, Americans heard volleys of verbiage about liberty, inalienable rights and equality before the law. This July 13, however, we pass another milestone: the anniversary of Barack Obama’s 2012 “you didn’t build that” speech. It is an appropriate time to note how at odds it was with Independence Day rhetoric and to ask which view is closer to practice under his successor.
Obama said “If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help,” including great teachers, roads, bridges and the internet as examples of what “you didn’t build” of “this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive,” as his premise for increasing taxes and transferring more power to government.
Obama mistakenly equated society with government. Our society does contribute to people’s successes. That does not imply the successful owe more taxes to government. As Albert Jay Nock noted, it is common that “the interests of the state and the interests of society … are directly opposed.”
Very few of government’s actions improve our ability to voluntarily cooperate, advancing our general welfare, from what would occur if it simply effectively defended our property rights. Instead, we see far too little defense of those rights and a plethora of government actions to undermine them. Such government failure doesn’t justify more resources to fund more failures.
Much current government activity has also simply coercively displaced voluntary market arrangements. Education doesn’t require government provision, much less justify forcing us to pay the government’s monopoly price for its substandard services. Some share of many successes belongs to teachers. But it’s those “special” teachers that deserve our gratitude, not the government that commandeered the education system from parental control and hamstrings more than advances its quality.
In fact, the drumbeat of constantly illustrated government failings reveals the same thing. For instance, at a time “infrastructure” is being used as a magical incantation, government roads, bridges and other construction projects come with pork-barrel earmarks, prevailing wage rules, union restrictions, project labor agreements, environmental extortion, “buy local” or “buy American” restrictions, etc., all of which cost Americans more than necessary.
That government overcharges us to do what we could do far more cheaply without their restrictions justifies a rebate for government “price gouging,” not higher taxes.
Many government activities directly inhibit voluntary arrangements, also harming our “general welfare.” A cornucopia of regulatory agencies, price controls, labor and zoning laws, occupational licensing requirements, ad infinitum, fit in this category. Expanding roadblocks to voluntary arrangements does not justify higher taxes.
Further, government has no resources of its own, so what it spends, it first commandeers from citizens (including those into the far future, as demonstrated by the national debt and even greater underfunding of government promises), ignoring the wonders free people create when their resources are not taken away and their efforts hamstrung.
In addition, every dollar of government spending costs Americans far more than that, by further reducing the wealth created by mutually beneficial production and exchange.
The progressive story line spouted today credits government intervention for the successes of our “unbelievable American system,” and promises still greater success from still more government intervention. But our gains are actually due to centuries of voluntary arrangements, made possible not by metastasizing government, but by the strict limitations originally imposed on it, following the logic of the Declaration of Independence.
Progressives need to abandon their false advertising for government’s potential and prowess and recognize, with Tom Paine, that “Society in every state is a blessing, but Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil.”
We should expand the system that enabled our successes by expanding areas of voluntary individual choices, not what increasingly chokes them into submission. Otherwise our country will become an even more notorious example of Albert Jay Nock’s, “curious anomaly” that “State power has an unbroken record of inability to do anything efficiently, economically, disinterestedly or honestly; yet when the slightest dissatisfaction arises…the aid of the agent least qualified to give aid is immediately called for.”
We have inherited an “unbelievable American system,” as July 4 commemorates. However, July 13 reminds us that the person who called it that misunderstood what made it so beneficial. And the current occupant of the White House seems to steer far more by You Didn’t Build That Day than Independence Day. But our incomparable social inheritance from reining in government cannot justify massive new intrusions that will undermine it.
Gary M. Galles is a professor of economics at Pepperdine University.