When it comes to argumentative stupidity this week, it begins and ends with the right wing furor over the “you didn’t build that” phenomenon. I addressed this briefly in my piece yesterday on Charles Murray’s renewed race baiting, but this controversy is too dumb for one post.
What makes this controversy so stupid? Obama was explaining the role of the basic social contract underlying American society — that we pool our resources to provide the best opportunities for success for everyone in America. It’s a sentiment that Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren outlined (much more eloquently than the President) last year. This shouldn’t even be controversial.
But of course it is. And the way conservatives have bloviated over this episode deserves a look in order to understand the troubling mindset of the conservative movement. And worse its dangerous disinterest in argumentative engagement. Let’s pick one at random, Erick Erickson’s RedState response.
It is a lie premised on Marxism. It really is. It is not hyperbole to say it. Prior to Marx, people did not clearly think of economics as class divided and did not think of the collective overriding the individual. Certainly the thinking was there sociologically, but not crystalized in economics.
FYI if someone says, “it is not hyperbole,” it’s hyperbole. Before Marx, economics was absolutely explained in terms of class. The collective good of the Crown and nobility dominated the individuals comprising the peasantry. The sovereign was judged by his or her ability to marshal the labors of the people for the good of the state as a whole. This was described in a book by Thomas Hobbes called Leviathan, which you may have read if you’ve ever taken a political science class ever. For Erickson’s information, the Hobbes book only predates Marx by 200 years — and even Hobbes was merely describing the class distinctions that governed Western Europe since the Romans.
But rhetorically, Erickson is less concerned with fact than with tying President Obama to “Marxism.” It’s a boogie-man that still holds sway with those old enough to fear nuclear annihilation at the hands of the Soviet Union. Unfounded ad hominem attacks! Hurray!
As Daniel Henninger noted in the Wall Street Journal recently, “There is no theory anywhere in non-Marxist economics that says growth’s primary engine is a social class.”
Or…you know, Adam Smith, the progenitor of modern capitalism. In his magnum opus, The Wealth of Nations, Smith famously wrote, “what are the common wages of labour, depends everywhere upon the contract usually made between those two parties, whose interests are by no means the same. The workmen desire to get as much, the masters to give as little, as possible. The former are disposed to combine in order to raise, the latter in order to lower, the wages of labour.” Workers are not the sole engine of economic growth for Smith, but perform a symbiotic relationship with the “masters” to create wealth. In fact, Smith believed value was specifically created by the efforts of the labor class.
So instead of, “there is no theory anywhere,” the truth is “pretty much every economist since antiquity has understood class.” But Erickson wants us all to believe Obama is out of touch with the weight of history.
The implication of Barack Obama’s statement is that we owe something to the government. The implication is that people succeed because of the collective conducting its actions via government. Most entrepreneurs would tell you they succeed in spite of the government. Barack Obama views it differently.
Really? Well then they are being intellectually dishonest. Do they want an educated workforce? Do they want police and fire protection? Do they want their goods delivered over interstate highways? Through the postal service? Indeed, even non-direct public services help businesses. Social Security and Medicare free individuals from sole responsibility for their elderly relatives, allowing them flexibility to take entrepreneurial risks. I’ll bet Erickson $10,000 of Mitt Romney’s money that if I gave a business owner the choice between buying filters to comply with the Clean Water Act or having to do business with an illiterate work force and dirt roads, I’m pretty sure that business owner would opt for the horrendous burden of not poisoning the rest of us.
The President seems to have taken Oscar acceptance speeches literally. Everyone thanks their agents, parents, directors, etc. But it was the actor’s hard work that won them the award. The President seems to think the Oscar needs to be chopped into bits and divided between everyone who played a role or, better yet, handed over to the government to be redistributed.
This is the argument? Indeed, the President is taking Oscar speeches literally — the actor deserves their Oscar AND they owe large swaths of their success to others who deserve thanks and support. By the way, is this support for respecting the Hollywood Left?
Henry Ford did not rely on the government. The first roads built in the nation were roads built of necessity, not by government. The Model-T did not come out of DARPA, but a man’s mind. And that man then put his idea to work, employing other people, who made and sold a product, generated a profit, and paid taxes into the system.
Henry Ford profited on military contracts, and his company never would have become the juggernaut it did without government money. Rudimentary roads were made out of necessity, but the economy did not skyrocket until roads were taken over by the Eisenhower administration and the Interstate Highway system was born. I double dare Erickson to build a competitive, modern business in a global economy on privately built and maintained infrastructure.
The ultimate problem with the article is its profound lack of a response to President Obama. It mischaracterizes, it derides, it snarks, but it never responds to the fundamental argument. The article beseeches the reader to bury his or her head in the sand and refuse to consider the role that any of the specific public services Obama outlines would play in building a profitable business. There is no claim that businesses don’t benefit from these services or explanation of how a business could thrive without these services.
Erickson falls squarely within the modern conservative movement — a political movement that thrives by employing inflammatory logical fallacies and mischaracterizations to distract from their inability to engage directly in debates they will lose on the merits.