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Three Big Myths Right-Wing Propagandists Are Spreading to Frame the 2012 Election

All in the name of disempowering the many and enthroning the privileged few.

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In July, Barack Obama stumbled into the unforgiving brambles of this myth when he  said in a Virginia speech: "If you've got a business--you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen." Instantly, the Republican echo chamber went KABLOOIE! "Obama Insults Small Business Owners," screeched Fox TV, and Lord Limbaugh, with his usual sophisticated analysis, snarled that the comment shows that Obama "hates this country."

But wait--the whopper-tellers were intentionally editing Obama to pervert his meaning.  Here's his comment in context: "If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help... 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."

It was the roads and bridges that Obama was referring to, not the business! He even went on to say explicitly, "We succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together."

Despite the storyline of today's libertarian fabulists, even those stern, 19th century titans of American industry--Astor, Carnegie, Duke, Gould, Mellon, Morgan, Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, et al.--were hardly paragons of go-it-alone individualism. Far from hating government, these self-proclaimed "free enterprisers" were extremely enterprising at freeing up government power and resources to help them amalgamate their private empires and personal fortunes. They brazenly bought public officials, laws, regulations, and court rulings to get subsidies, land, permits, rights-of-way, contracts, monopolies, police actions, and other major government benefits.

[Tidbit: During August's GOP national convention in Tampa, a right-wing outfit tried to mock Obama's "You didn't build that" remark by throwing a grandiose soiree titled: "Salute to Entrepreneurs Building America." What entrepreneur, specifically, did the group salute?  David Koch! Odd--since this "bootstrapper" started out with gold-plated boots, having inherited a fortune and an ongoing industrial business from his millionaire daddy. And, while David and older brother Charlie did increase the wealth of the family empire, they did so in large part by deploying a pack of mad-dog lobbyists to protect and extend the massive government subsidies the Kochs still get for their "private" enterprises. Bonus tidbit: Guess who founded, funds, and directs the group that sponsored the salute to David? Right! David himself.]

Finally, let's revisit the claim that de Tocqueville saw "self-interest" as a great American virtue. This turns out to be another slice-and-dice job by the mythologists. As economist  Joseph Stiglitz pointed out in an article last year, what the Frenchman actually admired was the fact that American society embraced what he called "self-interest properly understood."

The unedited phrase conveys the opposite meaning of crass selfishness. It says that to understand what is really in your self-interest, you have to ponder how others will feel and react if you just grab yours and say to hell with everyone else. In de Tocqueville's assessment, Americans have an ingrained sense that we're all in this together--a characteristic that tempers the animalistic, gorge-yourself-and-go impulse. This is not derived from altruism, he noted, but a pragmatic realization that one's well-being in a democratic society is inextricably tied to everyone else's well-being. In short, we need each other. That understanding is the essence of America's uniting ethic of the common good--a concept so essential to who we are that the Founders engraved it right at the top of the Constitution, declaring that a core purpose of this nation's historic experiment in self-government is to "promote the general welfare."


This hoary canard has been around since there's been a right wing, but it's been pushed relentlessly since the Reagan era by such hawkers of corporate-think as the Cato Institute (founded in 1974 by Charles Koch). This is the founding myth of today's Grover-Norquistian nonsense that we must privatize every public function and reduce government to a mere appendage of the corporate order. The claim is that corporate executives are necessarily efficient, cost-effective managers who must be responsive to consumer (i.e., public) wants and needs, so better that they should run things than the bloated, self-serving, out-of-control, do-nothing bureaucracies of government.

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