Appreciating what we’ve built (or dismissing the myth of the "romantic" business owner / entrepreneur / free market)

[What follows is the short version of a somewhat dated but still relevant, unplaced op-ed.  I'll post the long version on the blog for anyone that is interested.]

We inherently depend on each other and on shared infrastructures of various types.  It is too easy to lose sight of this basic fact.  We like to celebrate individual achievement and independence.  Unfortunately, we make the mistake of thinking in binary terms, individual or social, private or public, market or government.  This leads to great distortions in our perceptions about the world.  Reality is more complicated.

President Obama was correct when he said “If you’ve got a business, you did not build that–somebody else made that happen.”  Most people understand that human beings are social and that we depend on each other to succeed.  This point can be easily lost.  As Obama emphasized, credit must be shared:  “The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.”

All innovations are the product of many.  The romantic notion of an author or innovator creating independently, completely free from the contributions and influences of others has long been discredited.  The ancient aphorism, famously invoked by Newton, “We stand on the shoulders of giants” nicely captures the intergenerational and cumulative nature of innovation. 

Of course, individual initiative, effort, and even personality matters.  Innovation depends on individuals.  Successful innovation, like success in just about anything, depends on many different factors, including luck, timing, skill, and access to necessary resources.  Rejecting the “romantic author” or “romantic innovator” is not a complete dismissal of individual accomplishment and contribution. It injects some realism about how innovation actually works.

The attacks on Obama for disparaging entrepreneurs and private enterprise are ludicrous.  What Obama challenged is the romance of individual achievement independent of social context, social institutions, and shared infrastructure.  He dispelled the myth of the “romantic business owner,” the “romantic entrepreneur” and the “romantic free market.”  

It is about time that such romanticism is discredited.  It has lingered too long and poisoned honest debate about public policy and the appropriate roles of governments, markets and other institutions in our society.  The romantic business owner / entrepreneur / free market meme casts every policy debate in terms of government intervention into free markets, and it anchors each debate to a host of premises that do not match reality. 

The danger of these concepts is that they hide the necessity of shared infrastructure, institutions, and social systems that improve our capabilities to be successful.  Furthermore, they hide the fact that the things we all rely on and need to succeed require investment and are currently crumbling. The question is where that money comes from.  Obama would like to raise taxes on the wealthy.

This is a very difficult position to articulate and defend in the current political climate in the United States.  An essential first step is to discredit the romantic notion that successful business owners or entrepreneurs achieved success solely through their own heroic efforts, without any input from the rest of society.  If the wealthy succeeded only because of their own hard work and abilities, then why should they pay more in taxes?  But if they succeeded because we all provided them with the platform for their success, then we need to have a national conversation about how to ensure that our children and future generations can continue to stand on the shoulders of those who have come before.  That’s the conversation that the President should turn to next.


Photo Credit: The White House

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