Double-Counting "Help" in Obama’s “If You’ve Been Successful” Speech
Much has been written about President Obama’s recent speech in Roanoke. In case you missed it, here are some excerpts:
[I]f you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own. You didn’t get there on your own. I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart. There are a lot of smart people out there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else. Let me tell you something -- there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there.
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.
Despite all the discussion devoted to his speech, as far as I’m aware, no one has yet mentioned the double-counting aspects that Obama invokes when discussing “help.” Specifically, he has an odd notion about what you do or do not owe for any help that you received in reaching your success.
This may be best illustrated if you think about how a teacher might have contributed to your success—especially if you think about that help, and any debt you may owe, from the perspective of your teacher
As a teacher, I believe that I have indeed helped many of my students—at least in minor ways—achieve success. However, even if that’s true, it does not follow that those students owe my anything for their success. They already paid any debt when they paid their tuition (or perhaps when they had that tuition paid by their parents or by another benefactor). I expect nothing more.
In contrast, President Obama seems to have a very different attitude. Under his notion it’s as if I, a teacher, make the following deal with you, my potential student: “You pay me (or more accurately, my employer) tuition money. In return, I’ll teach you (say) some political science concepts that will help you get into a good law school. Further, if afterward you get a job at a great law firm, you’ll owe me again for my teaching. And if you make partner at that law firm, you’ll owe yet again. And if you achieve further success, you’ll owe me once again.”
That clearly was not the deal we made. To treat our relationship as Obama treats it is to double-count my teaching.
In fact, if anything, the opposite is true. When I see my students succeed, I feel it is I who owe them, not the other way around. That is, when my students succeed, I look good as a teacher. It allows me to brag about their success, and it actually causes my salary to increase. In a truly just universe, it would be my unsuccessful students who would owe me additional money or gratitude, not my successful ones.
Something similar is going on with the rest of Obama’s speech. If you own a business, yes, it’s true, that you probably didn’t build it all yourself. However, if people helped you, you surely paid them for the help. You don’t owe them any more. Similarly, if your business was helped by roads or bridges that government built, you probably already paid taxes for those roads and bridges.
Yes, it’s good to recognize the help of others. But it’s not accurate, nor appropriate, to double-count that help. Obama and his supporters seem to miss this point.