Obama Tells Business Owners: You Didn’t Build That

The president seems to believe that businesses can only succeed if the government helps them.

President Barack Obama delivers a campaign speech in Richmond, Virginia, May 5
President Barack Obama delivers a campaign speech in Richmond, Virginia, May 5 (Obama for America/Madeleine Perry)

President Barack Obama told businessowners in Roanoke, Virginia on Friday that they aren’t exclusively responsible for their success. “Somebody invested in roads and bridges,” he said. “If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.”

The quotes strikes at the heart of the president’s thinking who believes that the success of some hinges on the efforts of all. He said at much. “The point is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative but also because we do things together.”

The Democrat, who faces a reelection battle in November, further said to be “struck” by people who believe that they succeed thanks to their own intelligence or hard work. “Let me tell you something. There are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there.” Implying that businessmen also depend on the labor of others.

There is truth in the president’s statement. Businesses do need labor but as with roads and bridges, its mere presence doesn’t produce business nor does it create wealth. Entrepreneurship and innovation are needed to put people to work and make effective use of infrastructure.

A free society needs government to create the conditions under which it can prosper. That includes, fundamentally, security and the enforcement of property rights. Unlike infrastructure, the market cannot provide these necessities for it would do so arbitrarily. But that is a far stretch from what the president is advocating.

Obama champions higher taxes on the rich to finance government job creation and unemployment insurance as well as public investment in education, “green” energy companies and “clean” cars. Even if enterprise benefits from some of such expenses, like education and government spending on science and technology research, that is not to say they wouldn’t happen without government intervention. Indeed, people are usually able to provide better services if they collaborate freely and voluntarily rather than through government coercion or direction.

Moreover, many other of President Obama’s “investments” are outright detrimental to free enterprise. Taking money from coal plants to prop up solar panel producers distorts the market. If consumers really would rather have solar panels than buy electricity that is produced from coal, they would buy them. They don’t because coal is cheaper. Hence the need for subsidies.

Similarly, if consumers would rather drive an electric car than one powered by gasoline, they would them but they don’t, unless there is a subsidy on them that is financed by taxing Americans who do drive a traditional car. How is that fair?

That is what “doing things together” amounts to though — government taking from some and giving to others. Whatever gives the government the right to decide for Americans what car they should drive, from whom they should buy electricity, where they should send their children to school and what medical insurance they ought to have?

Unlike what the president believes, it does not in fact help businesses. Traditional car makers are put at a disadvantage, as are oil and gas companies, as are private schools, as are jobseekers because the president’s own health care reform law discourages companies from hiring fifty or more workers because if they do, they will have to pay health insurance for all of them. Such are the unintended consequences of government intervening in the market in an attempt to correct its perceived shortcomings.


  1. No. THIS is what he said: “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. The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.”
    Without MY tax money to build roads, create a communication infrastructure, educate the workforce, no business could survive in this country.
    But, you know that’s what he was saying. You just need something to counter his very cogent argument, despite how disingenuous it might be.

  2. I provided almost the full quote, except for the Internet part, unlike many other right wingers who left out the “roads and bridges” part, pretending the president was saying to business owners they didn’t build their own business but my argument stands so I’m not sure what you’re objecting to?

  3. You state: “Entrepreneurship and innovation are needed to put people to work and make effective use of infrastructure.”

    What you seem to be saying is that this always comes from the top down in a business when if fact, both of these qualities often come from good employees, not necessarily the owners of a company. It is not unusual for those bright employees to go on and start their own businesses and benefit, in turn, from the good employees they hire. This right wing idea (I guess it comes from a Randian view of the business world–which is to say, fictional) that only the guy at the top is the smart one is just nonsense.

  4. That’s not the point. The question is: what makes a business? I argue that the mere presence of infrastructure and labor doesn’t. It takes entrepreneurship. That’s not to say it’s only one person in a business who makes it thrive. Entrepreneurship can be collaborative. But usually, it’s one person or a small group of people who start the business. They “kickstart” growth.

  5. Don’t listen to the partisan hacks. Obama was way out of line with this attack on free enterprise. You were correct in your assessment. Excellent piece

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