Andrew Sullivan blasts ‘Obama’s biggest blunder’

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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Fallout continues from President Obama‘s “you didn’t build that” comments from last week. I’ve included some of the most nuanced and eloquent below:

Conservative columnist Pat Buchanan noted Obama’s lack of insight in the ‘American System,’ explaining that Obama might have made his point more diplomatically:

Had Obama been channeling Isaac Newton — “If I have seen further than others it is because I am standing on the shoulders of giants” — or John Donne — “No man is an island, entire of itself” — many would have nodded in agreement.

But what Obama seemed to be saying — indeed, was saying — was that, without government, no business can succeed.

Yuval Levin was keen to note Obama’s use of the straw-man argument:

It’s very evident from this passage and from a great deal of what he has to say about his opponents that Obama thinks he is running against a band of nihilistic Ayn Rand objectivists who champion complete and utter radical individualism.

The president implies that his opponents don’t think government has any purpose at all, or that laws are necessary for free markets, and don’t recognize the fruits of any common efforts in American history. That’s just ridiculous. I’m sure there are many libertarians who wish Republicans really were radical individualists, but there’s just simply nothing in what Republicans have said or done in our time to support the idea that they are.

Charles Krauthammer found absurdity in Obama’s failure to differentiate between civil society and government:

To say that all individuals are embedded in and the product of society is banal. Obama rises above banality by means of fallacy: equating society with government, the collectivity with the state. Of course we are shaped by our milieu. But the most formative, most important influence on the individual is not government. It is civil society, those elements of the collectivity that lie outside government: family, neighborhood, church, Rotary club, PTA, the voluntary associations that Tocqueville understood to be the genius of America and source of its energy and freedom.

And even Andrew Sullivan, one of Obama’s foremost advocates, described the gaffe as “Obama’s Biggest Blunder Yet”:

[M]y own view is that, sure, government helps the individual in a market economy. Without a strong government, there is no effective market economy. Unlike some contemporary conservatives, apparently, I have read Adam Smith. I had a government-paid education through college that was among the best in the world. My healthcare as a kid was socialized. The fact that I have managed to make a living through writing was undoubtedly helped, nourished and sustained by public sector investment – not least of which was the Internet itself, made possible by defense spending.

But whatever success I have had is also due to my own efforts. I was the first in my family to go to college and became a classic American immigrant – arriving with a scholarship and now living my own small version of the American Dream. Six other people now have jobs because I spent six years blogging for nothing. Producing the kind of output on the Dish for twelve years is something you have to be devoted to. It takes real elbow grease. I’m ok with paying half my income to various levels of government as the price of having this opportunity, but I’d rather not be told I’m lucky not to pay much more. Or that I somehow owe much of it to someone else I don’t know.

(Emphasis mine.)

Here’s my general sense. The government, for as much good as it may try to do, isn’t terribly good at building things. Bureaucrats may dole out money for farm subsidies, but few at the USDA’s Waterfront Building in Washington, D.C. will have callouses on their hands from working in the fields to deliver a crop. And the government certainly doesn’t feel the pain associated with long hours, sweat from the hot day, and the need to sacrifice — and prioritize — in order to succeed.

Obama’s emphasis seemed to betray a misunderstanding of the social contract. Sure, we need other people to be successful. But he seems to put the government before the people, when, in fact, the people came together to for the institution of government.

The government does many things — few of them well — but it rarely builds things.

People do.

That was Obama’s great gaffe.

Matt K. Lewis