In the Arena

Who Built I-80? Obama Talks about Public Works, Conservatives Fumble

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There are, Lord knows, reasons to attack or criticize Barack Obama. The Republican Party seems unable to locate the President’s actual deficits, however, and continues to hammer him on dumb things. Like the notion that he isn’t really an American. Or they take things he says out of context. For example, this now semi-famous statement: “If you’ve got a business–you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.”

Now let’s take a look at what the President actually did say, in context:

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.

Clearly, and I mean this is pretty obvious, the President is not saying that businessmen aren’t responsible for building their businesses. He is saying that government is responsible for building the highways and airports and information superhighways like the internet that help business do business. This is not an anti-business statement. It is a pro-government statement (and pro-government statements are not necessarily anti-business–just ask any local Chamber of Commerce that gets government grants for civic improvement). Furthermore, the President is supporting the sort of government that free market champions going back to Adam Smith have favored. Indeed, Smith is on the record in favor of taxes–more immediately, tolls–to pay for these public works:

A highway, a bridge, a navigable canal, for example, may in most cases be both made and maintained by a small toll upon the carriages which make use of them: a harbour, by a moderate port-duty upon the tonnage of the shipping which load or unload in it. The coinage, another institution for facilitating commerce, in many countries, not only defrays its own expense, but affords a small revenue or seignorage to the sovereign. The post-office, another institution for the same purpose, over and above defraying its own expense, affords in almost all countries a very considerable revenue to the sovereign.

The ahistorical extremists who call themselves conservatives are, of course, blocking bills that would furnish funds to repair roads and bridges, and also the post office, and–another “of course” seems necessary here–they are blocking any effort to raise tolls to pay for them. They are panicky right now because Mitt Romney’s furtive behavior is hurting their party and so they’re trotting out this sloppy crap. Arguments can be made about this Administration’s anti-business actions, especially when it comes to the sclerotic regulatory morass and the byzantine tax code, but no one seems to be making them.

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