For those of you living under a rock, there has been a recent uproar over something our gentle public servant Obama said the other day. If you search for "you didn't build that", you will doubtless find a great number of news items describing, quoting, misquoting, spinning and backpedaling on the statements of the president. I will not sully my site with the banal news cycle. I simply wish to provide my thoughts on the subject.
There are various arguments of the type, "You couldn't have accomplished (or you wouldn't have possession of) X, Y or Z without the government. The government invested in the internet, microchips, space exploration, your education, and roads. They provided laws and boots for your protection including such things as patents, police, armies, navies and courts. Governments paid Columbus to "discover" the new world and Lewis and Clark to explore and document it. Therefore, you have no cause to complain about taxation or other government interventions which have provided for your general welfare."
These arguments are generally given by the left, though the right is only conditionally allergic to them. They are given in opposition to the simplistic, dare I say Randian, portrayal of the rugged individualist entrepreneur standing alone against the world to profit in a capitalist paradise. They so often end with some variant of, "You didn't accomplish this alone." Well of course is it overly simplistic to think that anyone succeeds in business (or in life for that matter) purely on the merits of their own efforts, but does it follow that we should back off any opposition to government based on this fact?
Of course we all rely on the kindness, savings, investments, intelligence, innovation and business of others in extraordinary and unpredictable ways. You must receive your business inputs, you must obtain the capital and skills to produce your output and your customers must find you and decide to purchase your product at the price you have set. You stand on the shoulders of inventors and discoverers who have come before you and presume that somehow a population will have the wealth and the desire to purchase your wares. You didn't plan all of this; you would have had to start before you were born. So if you succeed in business through loss of your own blood, sweat and tears, whom do owe and how much?
Certainly you can account for the prices paid for your raw materials, your capital equipment, your employees and your education. You will pay interest or give up a portion of future profits to investors. Your parents are unlikely to insist repayment for your upbringing, so you're off the hook there. You either pay rent for your property or you purchased it outright. Last but not least, your customers pay you, which ultimately allows you to pay for all of your inputs. So maybe you owe your customer the most; you clearly couldn't have done it without them. But wait a minute, they received something in this transaction - your product. Did they pay too much? Should you give something back, if not to them then to society? Unless you defrauded them, forced them or sold a defective product, you should not feel the need to repay anyone. The price paid for any good is a reflection of the subjective valuation of that good to the purchaser at the given place and time. You give a man a hamburger, he gives you $5 and you owe each other nothing but mutual thanks. This relationship recurses back through every transaction in the chain of production and we end up with this beautiful, spontaneous, chaotic order in which we can peacefully make progress and profits off the backs of our neighbors and owe them nothing but our thanks.
Now enter a gang of thieves who disrupt this harmonious relationship with force or subterfuge. Their guns represent an attempt to get something from the beautiful order of man without giving anything in return. The gang may in special circumstances provide money in exchange for their takings, but this "price" is meaningless on account of their weapons and their "right" to use them. Imagine a gang large enough to repel all other gangs between the sea and the nearest mountain range. The pragmatic gang will not disrupt the order enough to destroy it as it provides for the welfare of all. They will protect their borders with troops and the order on their streets with police. They will take their cut of commerce flowing in, out and within their realm. The population will become so accustomed to these takings that the guns will be rarely taken out of their holsters for the robbery, which then will be called a tax. If possible they will monopolize the currency used by the populace to aid in extracting the resources required to "maintain" the order, which preceded their existence. Finally, the populace will thank them and sing their praises for false promises written on paper to constrain the power they have already usurped for themselves. They will put roads and build bridges where it pleases them and pay prices that mean nothing for materials and labor. With funds taken from the people, they will pay meaningless fees to scientists to discover things they think people are interested in knowing and engineers to build things they think people will want. In the same way they will enforce a curriculum upon the youth. They will mistake progress with comfort and destroy both by paying men to dig ditches and fill them in. For all of this they will claim a right to thanks from the citizenry. They will shout down objections to their power with claims that the order would not exist without them and that their theft was necessary and beneficial. And at this point, their resemblance to the state is complete.