Did you build your own business?

Rarely does a phrase hit that conservatives and liberals can both seize as a rallying cry. Elizabeth Warren’s statement that “Nobody in this country got rich on his own,” reiterated less tactfully by Obama, is such a meme.

To conservatives, this shows the destructive socialist kernel in liberalism, denying individual effort and ingenuity in order to take from the producers and give to the non-producers. To liberals, it is a simple reminder that every successful capitalist venture makes material use of pre-existing social formations.

The funny thing is that the logic of this meme is built upon propositions that everyone can agree upon:

  1. Individual effort is a valuable driver in any business venture.
  2. Entrepreneurs who so drive the venture deserve ample recompense.
  3. Entrepreneurs draw upon existing social formations in building their business.
    (a) The entrepreneur was educated (through schooling and apprenticeship) by and within a social formation.
    (b) The entrepreneur’s workers were educated (through schooling and apprenticeship) by and within a social formation.
    (c) The entrepreneur drew upon and continues to draw upon existing technologies and infrastructure (transportation, communications, policing and judicial, trained work force, consumer base, etc.).
    (d) If the business has more than one employee, the profits of the business depend in part upon the labor of the employees.

No reasonable person on either side can dispute these propositions – a successful business depends in part upon the efforts and ingenuity of the entrepreneur and in part upon a pre-existing infrastructure. The real dispute comes down to a matter of emphasis. Rational conservatives will admit that social infrastructure plays a role, but assign that role a minor value compared to individual initiative. Rational liberals will admit the value of individual initiative, but emphasize the individual’s obligation to give back to the social infrastructure from which he or she so heavily drew.

Given these premises, most would agree that the successful businessperson with a number of employees should feed something back into the infrastructure through taxes. The only real dispute is what amount is a fair amount.

I could stop here, and leave this as a non-partisan analysis of the meme to see if both sides could agree to this much. But my conservative friends know me better than that, so I’ll follow up with my liberal conclusions. Like most Democrats, I believe that the owner of such a venture, or the CEO in the case of larger businesses, can in all fairness make 10, 20, 30 times as much as the average employee. If you have a dozen employees averaging $30,000 a year and you’re taking home a half million, good for you. Contrary to popular opinion, liberals are not out to soak the rich. But let’s face it, the wealthier you are, the more you are making from investments (and from the productivity of your work force) rather than from your personal productivity. Liberals say that you and I and Oprah should pay the same tax rates on our first $250,000, and that you and I and Oprah should pay a slightly higher rate on our income that falls over that line. In a country with huge income inequality, where the rich are fabulously rich, where the middle class is stagnant, and where the poor are hard-pressed to break out of poverty, that doesn’t seem too much to ask. We do all live and die, flourish and falter, within the same social infrastructure, and the wealthier you are, like it or not, the more you have gained from that infrastructure. To liberals, it’s just a matter of getting the investing elite to put a little bit of the surplus back into the infrastructure that supports the worker bees of productivity.

2 thoughts on “Did you build your own business?

  1. A most excellent analysis; one likely to be persuasive to most reasonable and rational conservatives. As you might suspect, however, our problem is that reasonable and rational conservatives seem to be a dying breed. With the advent of Rush Limbaugh and Fox News, et al, the Republican party has been taken over by Law of the Jungle zealots… people who will not grant an inch of ground to anyone opposed to their world-view of individualism and so-called liberty. For the Law of the Jungle zealot, what you describe as social formations and pre-existing infrastructure are simply the Jungle he or she strives in to either thrive, survive or perish. To such people, nuance and perspective are useless tools in this environment (you’re either with us or against us!). This type of entrepreneur is incapable of giving the Jungle any credit for his or her good fortunes. “It’s all mine! Keep your grubby hands off!”

    Many have faulted our education system for the recurrence of such selfish radicalism (yes, it has been here before), but I would disagree slightly. The true educational failure must be laid at the feet of America’s parents. As simple as it sounds, the failure of parents to teach their children the vitues of sharing with and cooperating with others is, in my view, the primary incubator for radical conservatism. Due to human biology and the precariousness of an infant’s existence, young children are naturally selfish as a hedge against adversity, starvation, etc. It is the same necessary, instintual selfishness as that of a baby bird pushing its siblings out of the nest to get more food from mama, etc. Eventually, however, human maturity requires sharing and cooperation as skills to build close communities. And this is where a parent’s early lessons come in: to suppress the instinctual selfishness and to promote sharing and cooperation with others (parents, siblings, friends, neighbors, etc.). Cooperation and sharing are the keys to human success. Without the strength of human communities, built through cooperation and communal sharing, our species would not have survived the real jungles of our early days. But in our current age in America, these keys are not generally taught. On the contrary, in many families, towns, corporations, etc. the concepts of sharing and cooperation are discouraged as a human weakness.

    I wish I knew the reasons for this sorry state of affairs. Perhaps it is because we no longer live in true communities; many, many of us have opted instead for vitual communities via the addictive, self-serving wasteland of electronic media. Perhaps we have been collectively hypnotized into believing our own individuality is all we need to sustain and fulfill our lives. Perhaps all the mass shootings are a symptom of a society on the fast track to horror and annihilation. Perhaps this era is Macbeth’s “tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing.”


  2. Setting aside the misquotes that both sides have attributed to the other in the political arena, when I heard the statements I thought that both were incomplete in significant ways. As someone who has run a business for 20+ years the glaring omission in both is that no-one achieves in business based solely on their own work effort. That is a notion best believed when you are in your 20s and wrongly believe you are the author of everything that occurs in your universe. Yes, you must be driven and ambitious and working for yourself is not something everyone can do. You eat what you kill, instead of eating with the pride. You deserve lots of kudos for risking everything and relying on your own smarts innumerable times. But what both sides omit is that you are helped along the way by a friend, a mentor, a client/customer, etc. They refer work to you, talk you up with someone, or lend and ear or advice along the way. Whatever skills Romney had at Bain, the odds are high he would have never gotten to Bain but for his father. I’m sure Obama had mentors along the way as well. That doesn’t mean they did not accomplish anything on their own, just that we are all helped by a hand up if we work for ourselves. Secondly, no-one does it all. If you succeed in business you did so in part because of the people you surrounded yourself with. It is easy to be dismissive of the staff and the “help” when you are younger. But time has taught me that the loss of key people around you can make working for yourself infinitely more difficult. Mondo Blue


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