Thursday, July 19, 2012

I Didn't Build That?

In a recent blog post (as this whole ordeal so often starts), one "dkuehn" reflects on the "You didn't build that." statements made by Obama, and opines for more worthy political adversaries:

"It's incredible that this obvious point is twisted into some kind of anti-business screed. Man is not an island, and we benefit all the time from the achievements of others, the knowledge of others, and positive externalities. The market itself is a positive externality because of the benefits conferred by liquid markets and diversity. That's called a network effect. The benefits derived from one more node in a network are much broader than just the benefits enjoyed by a single person making a decision to enter that network."

I'd like to display my initial thought(s) as well as an response to a later reaction in the comment section (which hasn't been responded to as of yet)...

My initial response:

"Boy, no offense, but you've had quite a litany of posts the last couple of days that have had me shaking my head a bit. You know how you, fairly often, take something (like this Obama quote) and say that you can't even imagine how it's seen as so controversial. Well, a lot of us read your criticisms of those criticisms, and think the same thing. This is one of those times (at least for me).

I don't expect everyone who picks up quotes/memes like this and runs with it to understand the full(er) implication of their criticisms. I'm sure that there are plenty of people (if not most of them) who do not look at the content in any serious way, and use whatever they can as a ploy to further their own political views. But it's not very difficult for me to imagine the way in which people could be reading this and finding it controversial. And when a very intelligent guy likes you seems "bewildered" by it, I'm (apologetically) inclined to think you're being too clever by half.

Of course man is not an island. And anyone who supports free markets (a number of whom share criticisms of this quote) knows that. Hell, if I had a dime for every time someone proffered that, as a libertarian, I must believe in some kind of atomistic individualism, maybe I'd have more time to respond to posts like this.

The context of his comments are narrower than that. He's talking (pretty specifically in light of the extended quote provided) of public/political goods within that network. By coupling that with the eschewing of atomistic thinking he's (not so subtly) creating a false dichotomy. People might be wrong to fight against the provision and securing of political "goods", but that doesn't make their views atomistic. You can be very aware and supportive of the concept of working with others and not support the types of things he seems to think are justified by such a sentiment. The ideas aren't mutually inclusive.

Put more concisely, if he's just axiomatically stating that we benefit from each other, then there's no point in bringing it up (in a political context). If he's using it to lend support to an array of political initiatives, then his argument is contentious at best - and I would think anyone would expect heavy criticism at the very least."

dkuehn later writes in response to another commenter:

"Nowhere in Obama's statement did say any version of "and if you disagree with me you must think production is atomistic".

Wills is worrying over nothing. I didn't respond much to that point because I didn't think it was a very insightful point.

Now, if Wills actually wants to generate an argument against this argument for public goods, that's fine. It's just a campaign speech - you probably could put together several successful counter-arguments. But don't put words in Obama's mouth about what the thinks of libertarians, and don't say he's creating a false dichotomy. A false dichotomy is saying "either you think people are atomistic or you think we should have lots and lots of public goods". Obama never said that."

And this was my response to that:

"Why do I feel like I've been sucked into a black hole and came out the other side as Bob Murphy?

"A false dichotomy is saying 'either you think people are atomistic or you think we should have lots and lots of public goods'. Obama never said that."

Alright, Daniel, Obama certainly never explicitly says that. But I do believe this statement approximates what is implicit therein. And somehow I get the feeling that you'd disagree (probably quite vociferously). So let's take a Socratic approach and see if we can broach the core issue more easily:

In the context of Obama talking about taxes, government expenditures, and various public goods & services, what exactly do you believe to be the rhetorical relevance of his foray into the "there are some things we do better together" rant? Is all of this talk actually decoupled from his policy prescriptions? Unless that's the case, then I stand by my previous point(s).

Either he understands opponents of his prescriptions are, in fact, generally not atomistic - in which case, what's the point of his rant? Or he believes those who disagree with his policy prescriptions are somehow eschewing the benefits of social interaction - in which case we have a large non sequitur on our hands."

Now, I think we can be charitable enough to believe that what Obama said was poorly worded...and that he doesn't believe that we have no significant part in building what we do (individually). But I believe what I've pointed out above is a pretty dirty thing to do rhetorically...and as human beings we do this type of thing way too often and should try to not only avoid it, but to call others on it when we see it.

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