If Entrepreneurs 'Didn't Build That,' Who Did?

As we slouch toward another election season, capitalism once again finds itself under attack.  Democratic presidential candidates are caught between an unspeakable truth — that capitalism is the greatest poverty-eradicating invention in the history of man — and an electorate veering sharply toward socialism.  Er, I mean democratic socialism.

Over the next eighteen months, we'll be treated to numerous critiques of our capitalistic economy — for example, that it's "imperfect, unjust, and racist," according to Beto O'Rourke.

Most Dems have yet to go this far.  In an MSNBC interview, John Hickenlooper merely balked at three separate opportunities to confirm he is a capitalist.  This was a bit bizarre: before entering politics, the former Colorado governor founded Denver's first microbrewery in 1988.

Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren offered a tepid endorsement on her way to redirecting, noting that "capitalism without rules is theft."  One can think of many principles that are essential to an efficiently functioning market (caveat emptor comes to mind), but rules?  Rules define behavior compelled by force or threat of punishment.  Perhaps this is what Pete Buttigieg meant by his reference to democratic capitalism?  In any event, one sees where this is going.

Clearly, obfuscation is at the heart of politics today.  But with Democrats likely to be driven farther left as the primaries approach, it's certain these finely modulated pseudo-endorsements will morph into bald condemnations.  

Underlying these critiques are, it seems to me, the resentment and arrogance of the intellectual class.  The former is born from the fact that the intellectuals' work product never seems to be much valued in a capitalist economy — at least not to the extent intellectuals would like it to be.  The latter presents in several ways, for example an imperial ethos, blind faith in technocracy, and a hubris that would give Lady Macbeth pause.

The old saw "you didn't build that" places this resentment and arrogance in a nutshell.  Recall how the line was served up by former President Obama during the 2012 campaign:

If you've been successful, you didn't get there on your own. ... If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. ... Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that have [sic] that allowed you to thrive. ... If you've got a business, you didn't build that.  Somebody else made that happen.

This quote was such a colossal blunder that within days, fact-checking outlets were hastily producing artful explainery as to why the former president was on solid ground.  But even read in context, Obama's comments astonish in the way they minimize the accomplishments of risk-taking entrepreneurs who look at the economic, financial, and administrative landscape and see in inchoate form an opportunity to create a product or service for which citizens would be willing to exchange their hard-earned cash.

The value of entrepreneurial risk-taking couldn't be clearer, particularly for a mature, mixed economy such as ours.  Historically, in the U.S. one new business is created each minute, while another dies every eighty seconds.1  Sadly, much of the recent academic literature suggests that business dynamism is on the decline.

The rhetorical purpose of "you didn't build that" is also clear.  If entrepreneurial efforts can be delegitimized, so too can the fruits of the labor, meaning that these ill gotten material gains (a Marxian term) can be confiscated and spread around.  But to whom?  

Who really did build it?

Obama has the answer: "somebody," he says.  In a single 27-second snippet from the above cited speech, the former president refers to "somebody" four times.  Rep. Ilhan Omar exhibited a similar instance of anomic aphasia in her recent comments about the perpetrators of 9/11.

In seeking a more suitable answer to the question, one naturally turns to workers.  Are the simple, unpretentious lumpenvolk more worthy heirs to our profits?  Well, consider that these individuals would be unable to ply their trade without business-owners having hired and trained them, procured the necessary equipment, paid the rent and utility bills, complied with relevant OSHA laws and regulations, underwritten their health insurance, etc., etc.

Consider, too, that the workers themselves have also been suckling at the national commonweal.  Have they not been run through our public education system?  Do they not travel to and from work on publicly maintained roads?  Are they not protected by our laws and courts?  Did they not, on their own march to respectability, also receive a leg up from...somebody?

If our ultimate benefactor is not the workers, who is it?  For the far left, to ask the question is to answer it: the State.  But are today's diktocrats really responsible for the vast network of laws, policies, systems, and incentives that drive our economic engine?  Did they build it?  No, I don't see how one can argue this.

The same can be said for public school teachers, police officers, and firefighters, and for those who supply our energy, grow our food, transport our goods, provide our health care, and maintain our infrastructure.  Wherever one looks, one finds individuals who have benefited from the wisdom, labor and training of someone who's come before.  It's not turtles all the way down.  It's "you didn't build that."

This line of reasoning isn't a serious argument against capitalism.  Rather, it's a vapid rendition of the complex relationships that exist in any society that has reached an advanced stage of social and cultural development and economic organization.

More notably, "You didn't build that" is a window into the collectivist mindset.  It's one that laments the distribution of wealth in our society without understanding that wealth is not "distributed."  It fails to distinguish between equality of opportunity and equality of outcome.  It's most at home trading in ideological abstractions rather than flesh-and-blood human beings.  Ultimately, the collectivist mindset seeks to obliterate the individual by robbing him of a sense of agency and, in the name of obscure utopian values, to trivialize modern life.  

R.E. Bowse teaches in the Isenberg School of Management at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.


[1] Ikwueze, C. (2018). Crowding Out as a Cause of U.S. Declining Business Dynamism. New York Economic Review, 49, 136–151.

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