Many conservatives are reacting strongly to a recent speech given by President Obama in which he seems to denigrate the entrepreneurial spirit of American enterprise. “If you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own,” said the president at a campaign event last week in Virginia. “You didn’t get there on your own,” he reiterated. “If you were 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 that 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.”
It shouldn’t be surprising that as we approach election day, the president’s articulation of his characteristic view of the American social compact will take on sharper edges. Indeed, the president’s sharp dichotomy in these and similar statements is what has struck a negative chord with many. But even though the president’s words here may have been designed to cater to a base more inclined toward collectivism, conservatives and independents should not respond by rejecting the kernel of truth contained in the president’s remarks.
It is in fact true that businesses and entrepreneurs cannot be successful on their own. Indeed, none of us are autonomous or radically independent in this way. The president rightly pointed to the experience that all of us have had of someone nurturing us and helping us grow and develop. The family is the first institution where we experience this community of love, but we also find such expressions in different ways in churches, schools, and workplaces.
As for businesses, their success depends on cultivating a relationship of service and trust with their customers. This reality isn’t groundbreaking to anyone who has experienced success in business (or any other field for that matter). The president also invoked the idea of “giving back,” when he contended, “There are a lot of wealthy, successful Americans who agree with me, because they want to give something back.” This idea of “giving back” causes many of the president’s ideological opponents to take umbrage. The concern is that such language depends on an idea of business as having first “taken from” in order to later “give back.”
But such an understanding doesn’t do justice to the real dynamic between business and customer. The relationship is based on voluntary exchange, in which each party gives something to the other. It’s true that, in a just exchange, nothing more is then owed by either party to the other. But it’s also true within the larger context of human reality that we recognize the gracious nature of such relationships, and can be thankful that we have the ability and freedom to give and receive. In this sense the idea of “giving back” can be understood on the basis of having first been given to rather than having taken from.
We all know at some level that we didn’t get where we are on our own, and that we have an ongoing responsibility and dependence on others for our continuing enjoyment of the goods of human existence. Christians realize, too, that our independence and freedom is ultimately limited and dependent, not simply on other people, but on the grace of God. So, there’s a sense in which we do enjoy the “dignity of causality,” as Blaise Pascal put it, through our own creaturely efforts. But there’s also a real sense in which none of us exercise that causality on our own, independent of God or other people. What’s needed, then, is a proper balance and perspective on this dynamic between independence and mutuality, individuality and community.
The president, as might be expected, tends to emphasize what the government contributes to flourishing communities as he argues for his view of American society. To the extent that he downplays individual initiative and the merit of enterprise, he does a real injustice to the reality of the situation. But we shouldn’t let the president’s overemphasis on the government’s role in fostering and sustaining community lead us to abandon a more comprehensive, variegated, and richer vision of community and social life. A proper understanding of human community is a corrective to, not a symptom of, collectivist thinking.