When I heard the president said that “if you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that,” I immediately thought of Arthur Brooks, head of the American Enterprise Institute, who writes and speaks about the case for capitalism. (His latest book is “The Road to Freedom: How to Win the Fight for Free Enterprise.”) He agreed to answer a few questions.
Were you stunned by President Obama’s remarks?
Not stunned, no. He simply articulated the progressive worldview. Worthwhile accomplishments are due to the efforts of the collective. Conservatives are more likely to believe that accomplishments come from the efforts of the individual. When people say America is still fundamentally conservative, it’s because the latter is still (for now) the mainstream view. The France-ification of America will be to shift the conventional U.S. worldview to the former.
Why is he wrong, and do his remarks pose a danger to the country?
Naturally, the president thought his remarks were relatively harmless — just a statement that you need a lot of public goods to get business done, or some such, so rich people need to pay more. His remarks were a dog whistle for conservatives, though. They reinforce the perception that he doesn’t really believe that successful Americans fundamentally earned their success. I think this is wrong as an empirical matter. But I also think it’s a rotten thing to say.
If you had five minutes with the president, what would you say to set him straight?
If I had five minutes with the president and he were interested in my thoughts, I would urge him not to attack success — not Romney’s or anyone else’s. Doing so breeds envy and suffocates aspiration; it weakens the system that attracted many of our ancestors here; it will make it harder for future generations to succeed; and it just isn’t right. I would suggest that he celebrate the accomplishments of entrepreneurs from all walks of life and try to create an environment where we can get more of them through a truly fair economy that rewards merit and creates opportunity — a society that builds more mobility.