‘You didn’t build that…’ not a new idea – ask Thomas Paine

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image of Thomas Paine
Thomas Paine

Republicans went apoplectic when President Obama stated July 13th that people don’t build businesses in a vacuum. He said the government and indirectly all Americans help build those businesses. That idea isn’t a new one. Back in 2011 Elizabeth Warren expressed the same thoughts and it seems that even founding father Thomas Paine stated that idea in a pamphlet published in 1795.

As a reminder here is what President Obama actually said on July 13th:

There are a lot of wealthy, successful Americans who agree with me — because they want to give something back. They know they didn’t — look, 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 because 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 hardworking people out there. (Applause.)

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.

The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together. There are some things, just like fighting fires, we don’t do on our own. I mean, imagine if everybody had their own fire service. That would be a hard way to organize fighting fires.

Remarks by the President at a Campaign Event in Roanoke, Virginia

In September of 2011 Elizabeth Warren, the Democratic candidate for US Senator from Massachusetts, said pretty much the same thing:

I hear all this, you know, “Well, this is class warfare, this is whatever.”—No!

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 didn’t have to worry that maurauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory, and hire someone to protect against this, because of the work the rest of us did.

Now look, 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 for the next kid who comes along.

There’s Nobody in This Country Who Got Rich on His Own, Says Elizabeth Warren

Those aren’t just progressive ideas. It seems Thomas Paine, one of our founding fathers, expressed the same idea in 1795:

Personal property is the effect of society; and it is as impossible for an individual to acquire personal property without the aid of society, as it is for him to make land originally…

Separate an individual from society, and give him an island or a continent to possess, and he cannot acquire personal property. He cannot be rich.

Agrarian Justice (1795)

Thomas Paine published the pamphlet after learning of a sermon by Richard Watson which claimed that God had made the rich and poor – infering that we need not do anything to help the poor. The pamphlet sets up the ideas of an estate tax and a tax on land values to fund a universal old-age and disability pension – 138 years before Social Security was started.

Government helps provide a stable environment for businesses to be created and thrive. It also helps create and maintain infrastructure that business needs to be viable like the Interstate highway system so it makes sense that those who benefit from that help give something back to help the next people coming up.

This is not an old or contrary idea to the history of this country. Republicans need to get on board.

image of Thomas Paine quote from Agrarian Justice


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