Political conservatives (among whom many would count me) have been lining up to shoot down Barack Obama’s statement on businesses when he said to entrepreneurs, “you didn’t build that.” They’re wrong when it comes to replying to Obama (because they misconstrue him), and I think that if they actually held to the view that Obama was replying to, they’d be wrong more generally when it comes to claiming the credit for our achievements too.
Now I don’t normally tell people specifically who I do or don’t support when it comes to political leaders, but suspicious minds being what they are, and because I’m pretty sure the comments I’m about to make will be interpreted by some people as motivated by political support for Obama, let me break with my own tradition and disclose: As I’m not American and I’m in New Zealand obviously I didn’t vote for Obama. But even if I could have, I wouldn’t have. I don’t support him. While he is not the devil, I do not support his political point of view, I do not support his use of the military in foreign countries, I think his actions in regard to the relationship between government and big corporations is shocking, and I also think that his stance on numerous social issues is simply wrong (e.g. on marriage) and in some cases nigh on genocidal (abortion). Any attempt to dismiss any part of what follows as veiled political support for Obama would be purely ad hominem even if true, and is in fact quite false.
What did Obama say?
This is actually the part I care least about, because my intention isn’t mainly to defend Obama but to get people to think much more deeply about the circumstances that give rise to their achievements. But I do want to start out by saying that I think many (but not all) of those who are commenting on Obama’s comments are being unfair to him. A picture paints a thousand words. Here are some of the pictorial ways in which the President’s comments are currently being lampooned. The general idea is that Obama is being depicted as telling everyone that no matter what they’ve built: from kids with building blocks to the Wright brothers and their aeroplane, they really didn’t build it at all. And then there are those who want to make Obama look stupid by saying “Obama thinks the government built my business? Really?”
If you’ve seen any of the political brawling over the last few months, you’ll know what the overall response to these attacks is like, and I think that the overall response is right: These attacks basically misrepresent what the President was saying. Sally Kohn over at Fox News (that’s right, Fox News!) is on the mark, as are many others in pointing this out. Here’s the allegedly offending comment from Obama:
If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet. The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.
You’ll see without too much trouble, I hope, that Obama does acknowledge that our own individual achievement is fundamental, but also – and this is what he is emphasising here – the infrastructure provided collectively enables us to have success. When he says “you didn’t build that,” the “that” (and he probably should have said “those”) consists of the things he is right in the middle of talking about: what was given to you by the great teacher, the roads, the bridges etc. And he’s right (unless you’re Al Gore and you invented everything). You didn’t build those things. Because of the benefits of being part of a community you enjoy so much more than if you were on your own. As Thomas Hobbes elegantly summed it up, if you were not part of society but lived in the state of nature, life would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”
It takes an almost unbelievable lack of charity to construe Obama as actually claiming that the government built your business, and that you were a bystander who really contributed little of value. Who would say that? Even as a caricature that portrayal is almost worthless, because even a misrepresentation has to be believable in order to be effective, and this just isn’t believable. I have no problem with the reply of Jeff Ready of Forbes, who is prepared to grant that Obama was indeed talking about the infrastructure that makes business possible for many, but is still disappointed that Obama’s comments and the defence of them shows “a complete lack of appreciation and knowledge for what it actually takes to start a business.” It just downplays way too much the “red tape and regulations” that business builders must endure, things that the government lays upon them in addition to good things like infrastructure, Ready says. OK fine, that’s a complaint that people are welcome to make. At least they’re willing to see what Obama said and claim that he had the balance wrong, instead of making out that he said something insane.
One quick comment on a widely cited response to Obama’s comment, a response from Charles Krauthammer:
Obama’s infrastructure argument is easily refuted by what is essentially a controlled social experiment. Roads and schools are the constant. What’s variable is the energy, enterprise, risk-taking, hard work and genius of the individual. It is therefore precisely those individual characteristics, not the communal utilities, that account for the different outcomes.
No, no. and no. This is just to perpetuate the misrepresentation of Obama’s argument. Obama never claimed that, given all the same infrastructure support, hard work makes no difference. Obama’s point was simply that such hard work, absent the infrastructure support, would not have gotten you where you are now. The claim was never that infrastructure was a sufficient condition for the outcome you got. The claim was that it was a necessary one. This was never an argument from Obama against the value of hard work. It was an argument for the value of infrastructure in addition to your own initiative.
The wider picture
But there’s more to the issue than what Obama said. He’s a nation’s President whose concern was to tout the value of Government spending, a decidedly political agenda. The issue that interests me includes that, but is so much bigger than that, and applies in more areas than just business; academic, sporting, musical, artistic and many other areas. The very metaphysics of free will and the limits of individual achievement come into play along with the role of God in the world, things Obama had no intention of discussing – but I do (so please, please, please don’t just gloss over and reject what follows simply because you don’t agree with my stance on what Obama said. If you don’t agree with the first part, fine. Forget I ever said it. We’re not talking about Obama anymore). Just how much credit can you personally take for your successes?
Whether you’re a substance dualist or not (I am not), to deny or downplay the findings of neuroscience in regard to the way behaviour, decisions and even beliefs are conditioned by physical circumstances is simply to stick one’s head in the sand. I’ll be saying a little more about this in a future podcast episode (entitled “fixing the wiring: a physicalist perspective on sin and salvation”), but here’s a preview of the kind of data that I’ll be discussing. The research of Benjamen Libet and others in 1983 demonstrated that even when people experience an action as voluntary, the physiological conditions in the brain start to change before the person is aware of making that choice, and then they act based on that choice, uncomfortably pointing to a pre-conscious cause of our sense of free choice.((B. Libet et. al., “Time of conscious intention to act in relation to onset of cerebral activity (readiness-potential). The unconscious initiation of a freely voluntary act,” Brain 106:3 (1983), 623-642.))
In research that many might receive with equal discomfort, Daniel Wegner and Thalia Wheatley demonstrated in 1999 that people who did not cause their actions at all will fact believe that they did in fact cause them if they are led to think about those actions before they occur. Their control over the actual circumstances of their decision-making was illusory.1
To those who tout themselves as masters of their own destiny, as people who pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps and as the ones who would want to give themselves all credit for their “hard work, ingenuity and determination,” the more we know about how the brain works the less such people would want to know. This is not just true at the level of individual decisions that we experience as free. At a higher level it applies to patterns of decisions that we make. Well-known MIT research addresses the question of jut why it is that habits are such hard things to break. The answer is that the physical conditions that underlie habitual decision-making include the formation of neural pathways. Once patterns of thought and hence patterns of behaviour have been established, changing them actually means physically altering the way our brains work, which is no small feat. This applies not just to things that we think of as bad habits that need breaking, like swearing, smoking (setting aside for now the addictive properties of nicotine), eating the wrong sort of food and so on. This also applies to what we would think of as fairly neutral decisions and behaviour (reading the paper at certain times of the day, walking on a particular side of the street, wearing certain types of clothing) as well as the things that we would evaluate as good decisions and behaviour (brushing our teeth or exercising regularly, working hard at our job, thinking carefully about the potential consequences of our actions, putting others before ourselves etc).
The role of our neurology in constraining so much that we take for granted as everyday free thinking and acting can be deeply troubling to the dyed in the wool advocate of absolute libertarian free will if they have not looked over the fence into neuroscience before. But the reality is that physical conditions beyond our immediate control have an impact – both short and long-term – in ways that are undetectable to us in the normal circumstances of life. The immeasurably vast network of causes that have been funnelled into our lives is just beyond us to be aware of.
This is why it is so ignorant and at times even downright heartless and inhuman to say of people who grew up amongst violence, crime, alcohol abuse and the like, that they just need to buck up their ideas, make the right decisions and turn over a new leaf. You’re flippantly talking about changing the wiring as though it’s all up to the person who needs to change, and it’s just not (more on this when I get to the podcast episode). This is also why it’s gobsmackingly presumptuous and arrogant to look at your achievements piled high and to say “You know, I really am a self-made man.” You have no idea how many things went into making you what you are. From nutrition to the influence of your peers from an early age to your parenting to whatever schooling your family could afford to things that wouldn’t even cross your mind – the slightest subtlety in circumstances on the 5th of March six years ago that prompted you (whether you realised it or not) to take a left turn rather than a right turn, meeting up with that person who inspired you (rather than taking a right turn and getting killed by the falling piano you never found out about). We so often hear the phrase “there but by the grace of God go I,” but have you ever really really thought about all that it means?
Let’s say that you have a successful business. That’s nice. No doubt you’ve worked hard on it. Are you going to take credit for every factor that ever enhanced your tendency to work hard on things? Maybe your hard work was enhanced by the fact that you’re smart. Great? Did you make yourself smart? Did you bring the universe into such an order that you came out of the mix with more drive than the next guy?
I don’t want to drone on, so I’ll move on to the last general kind of consideration that bothers me about the “I did this all myself. Me. I built this” mindset. That kind of consideration is the role of God in all this. I generally don’t talk about the Calvinist / Arminian debate, for the simple (and perhaps cowardly) reason that when I do, people start attributing all sorts of beliefs to me that I don’t hold (that particular debate has a rather unique effect on people to generate heat without light). But I’m going to venture into the territory of divine sovereignty here because I think it’s relevant. Even if you don’t identify with a so-called “Calvinist” or Augustinian (or Thomistic, I might add) view of divine sovereignty, I want to gently nudge you in the direction of seeing God as being so much more than just a player in the game of reality, interacting with other players (like us). I want to encourage you (although I won’t do much to try to persuade you) to see God as actually being “behind it all.” In a very layman-friendly, candid look back at his own journey to faith, Charles Spurgeon said:
One week-night, when I was sitting in the house of God, I was not thinking much about the preacher’s sermon, for I did not believe it. The thought struck me, How did you come to be a Christian? I sought the Lord. But how did you come to seek the Lord? The truth flashed across my mind in a moment—I should not have sought Him unless there had been some previous influence in my mind to make me seek Him. I prayed, thought I, but then I asked myself, How came I to pray? I was induced to pray by reading the Scriptures. How came I to read the Scriptures? I did read them, but what led me to do so? Then, in a moment, I saw that God was at the bottom of it all, and that He was the Author of my faith, and so the whole doctrine of grace opened up to me, and from that doctrine I have not departed to this day, and I desire to make this my constant confession, “I ascribe my change wholly to God.”
If God is not simply an affected party among all the other affected party in existence, but is really the one who created everything that exists, then (so say I) Spurgeon’s new insight to God’s role in his own salvation should have some similarity (notice how I word that in a manner sufficiently vague as to not commit me to a specific model of causation here) to the way you see your success in business.
It’s the stuff that lengthy tomes have been written on so I don’t presume to capture it all in one short blog post, but quite apart from anything President Obama said, I’m now saying to you: Did you build that? Really? All by yourself, bringing into being all the causes that gave you all the abilities you have, bringing into your path all the outside influences that shaped your character and decision-making tendencies, forming your own genetic and neurological predispositions, wielding sovereignty over the whole Universe to bring all the circumstances together in which you could build your… what was it again, a tyre shop?
No, actually. I really don’t think you did build that.
PS Yes, I know, running a tyre shop is a perfectly good business activity and I didn’t single it out in order to demean it.
EDIT: This might be helpful to add: I don’t want people to get too hung up on whether I’m right or wrong about what Obama meant (although obviously I think I’m right!). However, let me point out that if I’m right about what Obama meant, then conservatives should have responded by pointing out that he was (implicitly) misrepresenting them. Of course they know that part of the reasons businesses can succeed in America is because of the benefit of community and infrastructure. As Maverick Philosopher pointed out (thanks for the link, Paul), then, the more charitable reading of Obama that I have endorsed doesn’t get Obama entirely off the hook. He’s still (implicitly) attacking a straw man. The trouble is, by taking the bait so readily and saying that Obama is wrong, the net result is that conservatives end up seemingly saying that no, actually I can take all the credit for my own achievements, and hence the bulk of this blog post is an appropriate answer, hopefully giving such people pause.
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- Wegner and Wheatley, “Apparent Mental Causation: Sources of the Experience of Will,” American Psychologist 54:7 (1999), 480-492. <http://www.wjh.harvard.edu/~wegner/pdfs/Wegner&Wheatley1999.pdf > [↩]