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Before Youdidn’tbuildthatgate progresses further, let’s call time on efforts by both conservatives and liberals to distort what it was that President Obama said.

In case you’ve been living in a cave: On July 15, President Obama gave a campaign speech in Roanoke, Va., in which he defended the idea that the rich have a moral obligation to give something back to their country. Here is what he said, in its entirety:

If you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own. You didn’t get there on your own. I’m always struck by people who think, “Well, it must be ‘cause I was just so smart.” There are a lot of smart people out there. “It must be because I worked harder than everybody else.” Let me tell you something: There are a whole bunch of hard-working people out there.
If you are successful somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. 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 then all the companies could make money off the Internet. The point is, is that, when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.

The problem passage, of course, is “If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.”

Some liberal defenders of the president, including Benjy Sarlin of Talking Points Memo and my esteemed TRB predecessor, Jonathan Chait, have tried to get Obama off the hook through a tortured interpretation of these words. They argue that the grammatical antecedent to “that” isn’t “business” but “roads and bridges.” According to their interpretation, Obama wasn’t saying, “You didn’t build your business.” He was saying “You didn’t build the roads and bridges that made it possible to build your business.” But that’s a reach. The word “business” appears immediately before “you didn’t build that” and “Somebody else made that happen.” And besides, if Obama had been referring to “roads and bridges,” he wouldn’t have said “that.” He’d have said “those.” You didn’t build those. Somebody else made those happen.

Conservatives delightedly pounced on these sentences as proof that Obama doesn’t value entrepreneurship. The Wall Street Journal editpage called it proof that Obama was “subordinating to government the individual enterprise and risk-taking that underlies prosperity.” Romney himself said Obama was asserting that “Steve Jobs didn’t build Apple, that Henry Ford didn’t build Ford Motor, that Papa John didn’t build Papa John Pizza, that Ray Kroc didn’t build McDonald’s, that Bill Gates didn’t build Microsoft,” and so on.  “To say something like that is not just foolishness,” Romney summed up, but “insulting to every entrepreneur, every innovator in America, and it’s wrong.”

Romney was right only in the most blinkered sense. What Obama literally said, in those two sentences, did indeed belittle entrepreneurship. But that’s only because Obama garbled the sentences. We know the sentences were garbled because they contradict what Obama said before them (“you didn’t get there on your own”) and what Obama said after them (“The point is, is that, when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together”). With regard to Obama’s intended meaning, Sarlin and Chait are correct. Obama clearly meant that although entrepreneurs build companies through individual initiative, they also get a lot of help from the larger society in general and from government in particular.

If conservatives aren’t satisfied with this reading of Obama’s intention, they should turn to Obama’s obvious source, a comment that Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren got a lot of attention for making last year. Like Obama, she was arguing that the rich should pay higher taxes:

There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. You built a factory out there? Good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for…. You built a factory and it turned into something terrific or a great idea? God bless. Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward to the next kid who comes along.

Warren’s words were eloquent, but it’s a sad comment on our current politics that their content, and Obama’s slightly bungled repetition of the same sentiment, should be deemed at all novel. Yes, entrepreneurship and individualism are wonderful things, but they depend on the stability and infrastructure and schooling provided by government. These do not come free; they must be paid for, and it’s only fair that those who are able to do the most with these blessings share some of the rewards with government so that others can one day follow in their path. As Sarlin pointed out in a subsequent post, Romney, even as he was willfully misinterpreting Obama’s point, also restated it: “There’s no question your mom and dad, your school teachers, the people that provide roads, the fire, the police. A lot of people help.”

No man is an island. If you want to blame anybody for poisoning the world with that socialistic idea, blame John Donne.