Monday, September 10, 2012

With a Little Help From the President

[This article originally appeared on the blog on July 18, 2012]

I’ve yet to read either of US President Obama’s books; however I’ve read in passing criticisms of use his excessive of circular arguments in them. Judging by his Roanoke, Virginia campaign speech, it would appear that the President has committed the same logical fallacy yet again. Being a politician by vocation, logical reasoning and truth-seeking deliberations are to be presumed entities outside of Obama’s scope of use. Far more expedient to the politician is the appeal to emotion and the clouding of any reasonable thought in the mind of the voter.

Thus, the president of “capitalist” America and “leader of the free world”—a trained lawyer—had the audacity to spew out something as illogical as follows:
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 point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.  (Emphasis added.)
The president’s main conclusion is correct; however his preliminary conclusions are not. To say that if one is successful it must be because of help received along the line is an unwarranted broadening of the definition of “help.” Likewise, to say that every success is the result not of the undertaker of the action, but of a mystical “help” from “somebody along the line” fails to acknowledge that somebody took specific action which resulted in the success (or failure). Thus the origin of the action is never reached, and the argument goes ad infinitum. It is true that no man is a universe in himself. Indeed, the state of the world at any given time is the inheritance of the present generation that is result of countless prior interactions among everything that comprises the Universe. Yet, this is only a general conclusion that cannot be applied for specific cases. Even when considering the history of the Cosmos we acknowledge specific parts of it that interact in specific ways to give specific results. As Mises wrote in Human Action:
The content of human action, i.e., the ends aimed at and the means chosen and applied for the attainment of these ends, is determined by the personal qualities of every acting man. Individual man is the product of a long line of zoological evolution which has shaped his physiological inheritance. He is born the offspring and the heir of his ancestors, and the precipitate and sediment of all that his forefathers experienced are his biological patrimony. When he is born, he does not enter the world in general as such, but a definite environment. The innate and inherited biological qualities and all that life has worked upon him make a man what he is at any instant of his pilgrimage. They are his fate and destiny. His will is not “free” in the metaphysical sense of this term. It is determined by his background and all the influences to which he himself and his ancestors were exposed. (p. 46)
The President speaks of roads and bridges. “Somebody” invested in them, he says. Very well, somebody did. And so every member of society has the same access to those roads and bridges. Yet, very few individuals become entrepreneurs in the transport industry, and only a portion of them become successful. Thus, it follows that success of the successful ones is theirs and theirs only. It is true that those who failed pushed the successful entrepreneur to become more innovative, more economical and more hardworking. But it does not follow from this that they deserve any part of his earnings. The successful businessman “paid them back” when he was answering their challenges. It is also true that by patronizing his business, the successful entrepreneur’s customers have assisted him. But, again it does not follow that he owes them anything, for he has paid them back by providing the goods or services that they found of use at the time.

If we took Mr. Obama’s statement about roads and bridges one step back, we must ask what made roads and bridges necessary. The answer to that is the motorized vehicle: a creation of private enterprise. The President cites the Internet as the product of government research. The story of creation of the Internet has become so muddled; its lack of clarity is rivaled only by the story of the creation of the Universe. I’m sure a certain Al Gore might have different version. In any case, even if the Internet was a government project, the President asks us to forget about every other useful product and service—all of which were the results of individual initiative. Of course, it should not be omitted that roads and bridges are presently built under government auspices because private concerns are forbidden (with a few exceptions) from owning and operating their own roadways.

Mr. Obama’s remarks betray his hopeless misunderstanding of the nature of exchange. People exchange products for products (money originated as a product) in order to satisfy an uneasiness. In market conditions they exchange freely, and purchase only the goods and services they deem will make them better off. On the free market no one entity can force another to purchase its offerings. This sort of binary exchange can only take place where one of the entities has the legal right to force the other to buy its goods or services. Being a politician, the US President has no use with clarity and verstehen. That does not mean he is to be let off the hook whenever he commits such intellectual crimes.

Despite Obama’s help in providing me with the material for this article, it was me who wrote it, not him or anyone else. While many saw the President’s fallacy, not all of them sat down and exerted effort in refuting it, despite the fact that they have the same levels of literacy as me, they have computers and word processors, connections to the Internet, etc. Of those that have, plenty have made cases quite different from the one I am making. I made this specific article and no one else. That is what Mr. Obama is missing.

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