Opinion writer July 30, 2012

My boyhood friend Jack became a doctor — and a conservative. He had gone to public schools, attended college with the help of a government scholarship, went to medical school on the Army’s dime, and learned his specialty in military hospitals. He insisted that the government had done nothing for him. In that way, he is both the soul and the wit of the Republican Party.

It was in rebuttal to the Jacks of this world that Barack Obama earlier this month updated John Donne’s “No man is an island” by knocking the idea that individual success is always the product of individual qualities, such as industriousness: “Let me tell you something: There are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there. If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help.”

Richard Cohen writes a weekly political column for The Washington Post. View Archive

This observation, so obvious you’d think it didn’t have to be stated, was then followed by what became a gotcha sound bite: “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.”

The entire GOP, including its claque in the press, pounced. You would have thought Obama had just belittled self-discipline and other virtues and quoted from “Das Kapital” or, even worse, a ditty by Pete Seeger. To his critics, Obama’s version of It Takes a Village was further proof of his commie creds, possibly Islamic as well. Mitt Romney found the line totally — and I mean like totally — “disconcerting.” As to the charge that Obama was being quoted out of context, Romney declared that “the context is worse than the quote.” OMG!

Of course, the president has nothing but truth and history on his side. Every schoolchild in my neck of the woods learned that the Erie Canal, which made New York truly the Empire State, was government-funded — $7 million appropriated at the insistence of Gov. DeWitt Clinton. The railroads did not come from nowhere and neither did the ports or the highway system. Government played a role. Government has always played a role. If it just got out of the way, the mindless mantra of the tea party’s heavy thinkers, we would all be in deep trouble.

Across the mighty ocean, the Economist magazine has taken note of this debate over the role of government and pronounced it healthy in principle but pathetic in execution. Both the right and the left have trivialized this important issue, but conservatives have gone from simplistic formulas to bravely idiotic ones. “American conservatism has grown so angry that it has become a parody of its former self,” the magazine says. “Tax cuts are always right (even if they inflate the deficit); government activism is always wrong (even if stimulus helped avert a depression). And the right’s hypocrisy when it comes to spending on conservative projects (prisons, the armed forces, subsidies to big business) is breathtaking. George W. Bush presided over a huge growth in government.” The Economist, a right-of-center publication, has it nailed.

Romney’s embrace of tea-party thinking is just ideological womanizing. (He won’t call in the morning.) While in Israel, he mentioned that one of the books that influenced his thinking on foreign affairs is “Start-Up Nation” by Dan Senor and Saul Singer. (Senor is one of Romney’s important foreign policy advisers.) It is a good book, mentioned favorably by me in a recent column, and it accounts for why little Israel has become such a high-tech giant. As always, there is no single answer. Large-scale immigration (mostly from Russia) contributed, and certainly the conversion from an essentially socialist economy to a capitalist one has made a huge difference.

But so has the government — in particular, the army with its own culture of innovation and intellectually elite units devoted to high-tech training and warfare. Graduates of these programs, having satisfied their military obligation, populate Israel’s high-tech sector — and, to Israel’s chagrin, America’s as well. Israel is the start-up nation because the government helped start it up.

As the Economist notes, this is not a trivial debate. The refusal of the contemporary Republican Party to acknowledge a role for government is linked to an illogical determination never to raise taxes. Obama may be too liberal for some, but the alternative that Romney offers by parroting the conservative GOP line is simply not credible. Prosperity may not always take a village, but it sure doesn’t take the village idiot.

cohenr@washpost.com