How to Contribute to Society

Michael Giberson

My title is too general; there are many ways to contribute to society and I’m just addressing one of them. But trust me, it is a good one.

A few weeks ago President Obama made his now memorable “you didn’t build that” remark. Most of the resulting political exchange has been pretty thoughtless, amounting to little more than “boo for your guy” or “hooray for our guy. Extremely rare have been the thoughtful reactions.

Here are two of the best.

Virginia Postrel, writing for Bloomberg: “The Bad History Behind ’You Didn’t Build That’

Postrel finds Deirdre McCloskey’s work on bourgeois virtues to be the appropriate foundation for a reply. The reason the world has progressed from living on an average of $3/day in 1800 to about $30/day world wide today (and much higher in many parts of the world) is the great change in attitude toward innovation in markets and the development of related virtues. The problem with “you didn’t build that,” in Postrel’s view, is in its reactionary anti-entrepreneur tone.

Of course she explains it much better than I’ve just summarized it, so go read the thing.

David Bier, at the Skeptical Libertarian, “Cooperation is what markets are for, not governments

At this point in his presidency, the statist subtext to President Obama’s remarks is clear. But his values–rather than his conclusions–are right on. Although he overstated the case, his essential point is what free market advocates have argued for years—that prosperity depends not just on individual initiative, but cooperation and exchange. Conceding these values to a president who has led the charge against these very ideals pigeonholes conservatives and libertarians into a clichéd version of individualism in which cooperation plays a secondary, rather than primary, role in markets.

Cooperation and working together is not part of the market—it is the market. The market is millions, even billions, of individuals associating, trading, and contracting. In the classic essay “I, Pencil,” Leonard Read argues that “no single person on the face of this earth knows how to make [a pencil].” It is a collaborative effort of millions of people—loggers, miners, truckers, even coffee producers. “There isn’t a single person in all these millions,” Read continues, “including the president of the pencil company, who contributes more than a tiny, infinitesimal bit of know-how.”

There is more to Bier’s piece, too, that this short clip. I particularly like Bier’s focus on, in effect, scolding those free market advocates who let themselves be pushed into defending a caricature of the rugged individualist as capitalist hero.  Cooperation should be seen and defended as part of the core of libertarian social progress.

4 thoughts on “How to Contribute to Society

  1. The linguistic pit that Obama fell into is a common one. He uses the pronoun “we” as a referant to various institutions and abstractions, including the Federal Government. The Federal Government is only “we” if he is a monarch. It is not, and was never intended to be the totality of everything. Obama tosses in State and local governments, community organizations, even volunteer fire departments into the “we” bucket. The result was a trian wreck of a speech that revealed muddled and confused thinking.

  2. Bier sounds spot on. Another difficulty is who Obama can say “built” this or that.

    Was this tax-funded piece of infrastructure built by the state employees who laid the cement? By the politicians and officials who decided it should be built and allocated the funds taken from taxes to do it? Or was it really built by the private firms and individuals whose taxes paid for it all?

    Clearly to some extent the correct answer is all of the above, but ….equally?

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