‘You didn’t build that,’ conservative style

Yaron Brook and Steve Simpson Executive Director, Director of Legal Studies, Ayn Rand Institute
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With Obamacare in shambles and President Obama proposing his newest one-year plan to fix it, Republicans are experiencing a moment of schadenfreude. That’s understandable, but focusing on the Democrats’ failures will not lead the Republicans to success. Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah) understands this, and he is busy trying to articulate the Republican vision for America. Unfortunately, while the senator’s fans may view him as a champion of free enterprise, Lee’s vision isn’t fundamentally different from the president’s.

We know what President Obama’s vision is. America is a welfare state in which wealth and prosperity don’t come from free individuals working hard to improve their lives and be happy. They come from society. “No single person can train all the math and science teachers,” or “build the roads and networks and research labs,” said the president in his second inaugural address. Instead, “we must do these things together, as one nation and one people.”

This is the vision of “you didn’t build that.” Everyone built it. And if everyone built it — if “one nation and one people” are responsible for it — then why should you get to keep it? We know the left’s answer: you shouldn’t. Hence, businessmen, the wealthy — the hated “1 percent” — are castigated for their wealth, taxed to the hilt, and called upon to “give back.”

It is the vision of Obamacare. When the government is making medical and insurance decisions for “one nation and one people,” why would your desire to keep your own policy matter?

For the president and his allies, the essence of America is not individualism, but a mushy form of collectivism. Did you get good grades and major in something marketable? Did you work hard for that year-end bonus? Did you risk everything to build a successful business? You didn’t earn that! You are not ultimately responsible for your success, “we” are. And as “our” agent, the government’s job is to spread the fruits of your labors throughout society in the form of taxes, subsidies, and entitlements.

So what is Sen. Lee’s vision? A ringing endorsement of the American spirit of independence and productivity? Hardly.

“The United States did not formally launch our war on poverty in 1964, but in 1776,” the senator said at a recent Heritage Foundation poverty forum. Since then it “has waged the most successful war on poverty in the history of the world” by becoming the wealthiest nation on earth.

Really? American colonists fought the most powerful nation on earth as a precursor to a mid-20th century welfare program? Would it be too much to expect a simple “you did build that” from a senator put in office by the Tea Party? Apparently so.

“For all America’s reputation for individualism and competition, our nation has from the beginning been built on a foundation of community and cooperation.” Our political system is distinctive, according to Lee, not because it recognizes that we are independent individuals, but because it assumes that we are all dependent on one another. “Freedom means ‘we’re all in this together.’ The conservative vision for America is not an Ayn Rand novel. It’s a Norman Rockwell painting, or a Frank Capra movie: a nation ‘of plain, ordinary kindness, and a little looking out for the other fellow, too.’”

In short, the essence of America is … togetherness?

Sen. Lee no doubt views himself as a champion of America’s founding principles. But how do his views really differ from President Obama’s? They both think America’s defining purpose is its ability to solve big social problems. They both think America’s wealth comes from some group — “community and cooperation” in the senator’s view and “one nation and one people” in the president’s. Their only dispute seems to be about how we should distribute it. Lee opposes government enforced charity and cooperation. But if you concede that wealth, success, and prosperity come from “community and cooperation” rather than individual initiative, why shouldn’t government force us to “give back”? The government would never stand by while some people stole property from others. If we really think groups produced the nation’s wealth, then it is groups that own that wealth and government should “redistribute” it. “We’re all in this together,” under Sen. Lee’s view, becomes just a conservative version of “you didn’t build that.”

Is that really what America is all about? Of course not.

America was founded on the principle that each individual has the right to live for his own sake and to pursue his own happiness. The Declaration of Independence makes this pretty clear. The purpose of government, as the Founders understood, is not to implement the grand social welfare plans of any political party, but to protect our rights.

Does individualism rule out cooperation? Obviously not, and neither Ayn Rand nor the Founders thought anything of the kind. Cooperation is hugely important in a free society. But individuals can cooperate and build communities only when they are free to think, work, and produce as individuals. And, contrary to President Obama’s view, it is only individuals who think, work, and produce; groups — which are just collections of individuals — do not. For example, Steve Jobs did not create the iPhone alone. But he was the creative spark and the driving force behind it. And everyone who worked with him was responsible for his or her own contribution as an individual. They succeeded as a group only because each was allowed to work and succeed as an individual.

So Sen. Lee has it backwards. The true foundation of America is individualism, not “community and cooperation.” And President Obama is equally wrong to claim that only groups are responsible for success because cooperation is often necessary to get things done. Individuals built this nation and created the wealth and prosperity that pulled us out of poverty. Sometimes they worked together, sometimes they worked alone. But individuals built it, and they will keep building it, only if we recognize that individuals — their initiative, their thought, and their work — are the fountainhead of all progress.

There’s a reason many tea party protestors display signs with “Who is John Galt?” or quotes by the Founders, rather than pictures of Norman Rockwell’s Four Freedoms. They understand that what makes America great — and what separates it from all other nations — is its individualism. Ayn Rand and the Founders understood this. Maybe it’s time for all Republicans to understand it as well.

Yaron Brook is executive director of the Ayn Rand Institute. Steve Simpson is the Institute’s director of legal studies. Find out more about the ARI here.