Crowding out private-sector success
There's a kernel of truth in President Obama's now-infamous “you didn't build that” insult to productive Americans. It's this: Every successful business — every successful life — in modern society requires the help of millions of other people. Each of us depends daily on butchers, brewers, bakers, light-bulb makers — workers and suppliers of countless sorts.
The thrust of Mr. Obama's remark, however, is unquestionably off-target. Even if we grant that some of what government supplies is worthwhile — that is, government helps each of us to better pursue our life's goals, including helping those of us who are entrepreneurs to build successful businesses — it doesn't follow that government occupies a uniquely important place in society.
Sure, Wal-Mart uses government-built highways to speed its inventories to its stores. But the fact that Wal-Mart would be unable to operate without the highway system doesn't make those highways a uniquely special input to which Wal-Mart owes all, or even much, of its success.
Wal-Mart would be equally unable to operate without farmers to grow food to feed its truck drivers — or without textile producers to supply clothes for those drivers — or without oil companies to fuel its fleet of trucks.
Would Obama therefore conclude that Wal-Mart owes some special, open-ended obligation to oil companies? Would he insist that, if oil companies now squander their revenues, Wal-Mart and other retailers are morally compelled to chip in to help oil companies get back into the black?
Highly doubtful. Yet Obama's plea that successful business people now be forced to pay higher taxes as a kind of royalty payment for government-supplied infrastructure is no different than if he would plead to force successful business people to bail out inefficient oil companies.
History speaks with crystal clarity, saying that, if property rights are secure and culture is friendly to commerce, people are more prosperous as government's role is more limited. History also teaches that roads, bridges and many other species of infrastructure can be — because they in fact often have been — supplied by private enterprise.
Among the kinds of infrastructure that have, in fact, been supplied successfully by private businesses are city streets, highways, sewage systems, formal education, policing, money and commercial law. Government provision of such infrastructure, therefore, cannot be read as evidence that government's role on this front is necessary.
If government failed to build highways to connect, say, Atlanta to Pittsburgh, private firms almost certainly would. (It's easy to collect tolls from drivers who use highways.) And likewise for nearly any other pair of cities in America. So in what way is any actual, government-built highway necessary for any private entrepreneur's economic success? None — if (as is likely) private enterprise would have done what government instead did by crowding out private efforts.
Moreover, if — as is likely again — privately built highways would be of higher quality and cost less to build and maintain than government highways, then there is even less merit to Obama's “you didn't build that” sneer. If privately built highways would be superior to government-built highways, then government's crowding out of private efforts that otherwise would have built highways imposes a cost on the many businesses (and consumers) that rely upon highways for their economic success.
Far from being grateful to government for its highways, entrepreneurs should demand reimbursement from officials who led the government's highway-building efforts.
Donald J. Boudreaux is a professor of economics at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. His column appears twice monthly.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Pirates notebook: Melancon bails out Watson with extended outing
- McCutchen, Pirates cruise past Twins
- Fed holds steady on rates
- Mt. Pleasant Cemetery Association seeks aid to finance future upkeep
- Chiefs star Berry beats cancer, returns to field
- NHL notebook: Olympic hockey champion Craig to sell prized memorabilia items
- Steelers’ Bell unsure why NFL reduced his suspension
- Gameday: Pirates at Reds, July 30, 2015
- Folding chair collapses, child loses tips of at least 2 fingers in Arlington
- Beaver County widow won’t lose home over $6.30 late fee
- Steelers unfazed by Brady suspension saga