By James Taranto, WSJ Online -
Who built "You didn't build that"? Not President Obama, or his speechwriting team, or even Elizabeth Warren, the leftist Massachusetts Senate candidate who's struck similar themes. Blogger William Jacobson discovers what may be the ur-text, and it dates from 2004:
There is no such thing as a self-made man. Every businessman has used the vast American infrastructure, which the taxpayers paid for, to make his money. He did not make his money alone. He used taxpayer infrastructure. He got rich on what other taxpayers had paid for: the banking system, the Federal Reserve, the Treasury and Commerce Departments, and the judicial system, where nine-tenths of cases involve corporate law. These taxpayer investments support companies and wealthy investors. There are no self-made men! The wealthy have gotten rich using what previous taxpayers have paid for. They owe the taxpayers of this country a great deal and should be paying it back.
The source, as with so much in left-wing politics these days, is George Lakoff, the University of California linguist who is the Democratic left's leading light on questions of cognition and rhetoric. That passage comes from "Don't Think of an Elephant!: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate: The Essential Guide for Progressives," the only book we can think of with an imperative title, an imperative subtitle and a nominative sub-subtitle.
The central problem with Lakoff's argument is that his idea of a "self-made man" is a straw man. A self-made man is a successful man who succeeded by dint of his own effort. When he says there's "no such thing," he's engaging in the sophistry of strained literalism, pretending that a man can be self-made only if his own effort is a sufficient condition for success. One might as well say there's no such thing as a self-made man because we all have parents, or because God created us, or because we are the product of millions of years of evolution, or because today's innovators stand on the shoulders of giants in the private economy.
That last point is crucial. No one denies that people alive today owe a debt to the past, but Lakoff and his fellow progressives seem to be under the misimpression that government is the only means by which we receive that sort of inheritance. The great industrialists of the 19th and 20th centuries might have paid a lot of taxes, but that wasn't their primary contribution to the world of today.
Still, at least Lakoff gives them credit for some contribution. That paragraph refers six times to "taxpayers," a word that never appears in Obama's July 13 speech. Lakoff thus acknowledges, if only implicitly, the economic truth that it is the private sector that supports the government rather than the other way around. For Obama, it's teachers all the way down.