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Giving back

By now you’ve probably heard that Obama said, “If you’ve got a business–you didn’t built that. Somebody else made that happen.”  And entrepreneurs and fans of the free market system everywhere said in unison, “The hell?”

Obama’s supporters were quick to point out context! But reading the whole thing still sounds awful to anyone remotely connected to an entrepreneur. (And here is where I mention that my dad was–and is– a small business owner and my first job was in the family business.  I swept floors, cleaned bathrooms, and emptied trash at 12. I kept the books at 15 and was delivering parts–and keeping the books–at 16.)

As Ann Althouse points out, it was just a rather inartful way of saying what Elizabeth Warren had said previously,

“You built a factory out there? Good for you. But I want to be clear: you moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for; you hired workers the rest of us paid to educate; you were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory, and hire someone to protect against this, because of the work the rest of us did. Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific, or a great idea? God bless. Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.”

 But even if he just mangled the above sentiment, Obama is still wrong for two critical reasons.

First, yes of course it’s true that we build our societies socially, i.e. it’s the combined effort of many that builds cities and states and countries. Obviously.  I don’t know anyone who disagrees with that sentiment. But where Obama goes wrong, and what most average citizens know intuitively is that government is not the primary builder of societies.  Sure, it builds the roads, but roads connecting what? The business and homes of individuals and families. And even groups of individuals bonding together and forming dirty, dirty corporations. (Full disclosure, my dad’s small business was incorporated.)  The government provides the army and police (funded by citizens), but to protect what? The wealth of individuals and those dirty, dirty corporations. The same wealth that is used to create goods, services and jobs that we all use, cooperatively and voluntarily.  Unless you live in a capital city, you know that most of society is private individuals owning private property and making personal decisions.  So far, our economy is still mostly private enterprise, not government.
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What Obama fails to understand–or perhaps even disagrees with–is that government is not the primary way we work together to build society.  We build our communities primarily as individuals making distinct choices in our own self interest. Yes, the government helps facilitate that building, but it’s a tool of citizens.  Whereas our individual efforts to build our communities are voluntary, everything that the government does comes with implied force. Do it or else.  And of course that’s necessary in some cases, but thank God it’s not primary.

However, the bigger issue Obama gets wrong is the role of entrepreneurs in the building of society.  Like everyone else, entrepreneurs benefit from an ordered society. However, the contributions that entrepreneurs make to that ordered society are generally greater than what they receive.   The intelligence, the work, and most importantly, the risk that individuals put into their businesses benefit far more than just those who builds the businesses.  Society as a whole is benefited through goods and services they provide.  We all benefit from the businesses they build, the technologies they develop, and the jobs they create.

And it’s not just their money, time, and labor entrepreneurs give; they risk their hearts and their dreams.  The entrepreneurial spirit is what built this wonderful country.  The same spirit that lead most of our ancestors to leave everything they knew to come to an unknown land for better opportunity is what drives most entrepreneurs– a spirit of risk and adventure and courage.   It’s no small thing to quit your day job to pursue your dream.  It’s an impressive person who works a 40 hour job, then 20,30 or 40 more hours in their basement in hopes that he can make his dreams come true.

Thirty percent of small business fail in the first two years, and half fail within five years. Those aren’t the best odds. And yet, entrepreneurs keep dreaming, keep building, and keep giving to society.  Yes, we all benefit from the society created by those before us and being maintained by our fellow citizens.  Entrepreneurs do more than benefit, they give back in spades.   Let’s honor and acknowledge that with more than a “Nice job, now where’s my cut?”

One response to “Giving back”

  1. Mary Avatar

    You tell ’em Sweetie!

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