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"You didn't build that..."

By Scott Tibbs, August 1, 2012

Social networking sites have been filled with images mocking President Barack Obama over his "you didn't build that" remark, but Obama's argument actually does deserve to be addressed in a serious manner.

One of the points that Obama was trying to make, badly, was that business benefits from the infrastructure investments of government. This is true. The criminal justice system helps keep business relatively safe, roads and highways (and other infrastructure) allow transportation of goods, the patent system allows people to make money from what they invent by discouraging theft of intellectual property, and so on and so forth.

But what Obama and others are missing is that business did pay taxes for that, as well as other working people who benefit from that infrastructure. Those taxes are part of the social contract we have and what we established government to do. Business does pay its fair share in contributing to that infrastructure (physical and otherwise) and for all intents and purposes, nobody is objecting to taxes to pay for things like highways and our legal system.

(Never mind that taxes are a cost of doing business and are eventually passed on to the consumer.)

But Obama's argument is more about whether we should have government at all instead of what the proper role of government should be. We can agree on the basic structure of a civil society and have serious disagreements over how much is too much and where government should leave us alone. Basic food safety regulations prevent unethical people from taking shortcuts and causing harm to others by not following the proper procedures to ensure there are not harmful bacteria or chemical contamination. Nanny state ninnies, meanwhile, want to prevent us from causing harm to ourselves by consuming too much soda.

That is a critical distinction. Causing harm to others and causing harm to ourselves are two very different things and should be treated very differently by government.

Obama did not make distinctions between the roles and responsibilities of federal, state and local government. As President, he should only be concerned about the first item on that list, and not about the others.

Obama is correct in that government provides the safety and infrastructure to create and environment where business can go. But he oversimplifies with his "you didn't build that" remark. Yes, Mr. President, they most certainly did build that. It is not unusual for someone creating a small business to work 60 hours a week (or more) for either no salary or an extremely small salary while trying to build his business. In some cases, those businesses are very successful, and the hard work and sacrifice does pay off. Those people are paying their fair share.

So, yes, Mr. President, let's have that discussion about how government helps create a basic structure under which we can work hard, innovate and make a profit. That discussion should start with the role of federal, state and local government and what powers each should have, and how we can devolve federal responsibilities to state and local government. This is not necessarily to eliminate those things (although a lot of that needs to happen) but to make it better by having it be controlled by the government as close to the people as possible.