You didn’t build it — we did

In this strange election year, it is a clear symptom of the madness that has gripped this country that it even became debatable over whether business tycoons built fortunes without the support of government and society in general.

Railroad tycoons, in the real wild west days of American finance, became tycoons because they obtained sweetheart deals to the land on either side of the railroad tracks they laid — as a gift from the U.S. government.  I would love to see the American businessman today who sells a product or advertises it without using radio or television (frequencies sold and regulated by the government to provide stable access and clear reception), roads or waterways to ship the product (provided by taxpayers, of course, whether interstate highways or dredging waterways), the internet (invention and development provided by the taxpayer), or electricity (the grid and many producers being government subsidized or regulated monopolies).  Oh, and don’t dare fly that corporate jet (the air traffic control system that provides safety to your flight is courtesy of the taxpayer and federal government), or ship any products by air either.

The reality of America today is that state and national and local governments all conspire to create the conditions in which business can flourish — from educating their workers to providing electric and transport infrastructure to providing basic police and fire protection for their operations and their customers.   Given those conditions, many businesses will succeed, and more will fail.  The winners of course believe that they earned their victories, and they did — but it is then incumbent upon them to help defray the costs of the system that set up and maintains the conditions for their success, because if they do not do so, who will?

Government makes economic activity and economic competition possible.  When the winners start thinking they did it ALL themselves, and can dispense with government (which they see as just a parasite seeking to take away part of their ‘winnings’ and distribute that to the losers) then we start moving toward a point when the foundations for economic activity will break down.

Of course the rich believe in themselves and are proud of their accomplishments.  That is as it should be.  But when they start to believe that their success entitles them to special treatment, that they shouldn’t be bothered with taxes or regulations, they undermine the very American system that produced them.  That system was founded on a belief in NO aristocrats, NO titles, EQUALITY for all.  When hedge fund managers think a 15% rate of tax on their income is an entitlement and paying the same tax as a professional or manager (let alone a secretary) is an assault on their very rights, then something has gone very wrong.  Whent the President reminds people that government is essential to every economic enterprise to create fundamental shared conditions for success, and is rebuked for it, then we have lost sight of the proper balance between state and society.

Of course you can whittle the state down to nothing.  But today the Federal Government takes a SMALLER share of GDP, and imposes a LOWER rate of taxation on high earners, than at any time in the last fifty years.  If conservatives still rail that government is the problem, it is because they have lost all perspective and all common sense.  PLEASE, take a moment and remember — when you fly on a plane, drive down a road, or use the internet — WE BUILT THAT.

About jackgoldstone

Hazel Professor of Public Policy at George Mason University
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