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Obama v. Romney: Two Radically Different Visions Of America's Future

We've got a stark choice: do we improve the systems that have made us rich and powerful in the past? Or do we tear them down in the name of "freedom," and hope for the best?

Photo Credit: Todd Benson


America is divided about its future. Should it keep and expand the system that brought past opportunity, prosperity and freedom? Or should it dismantle that system?

President Obama recently reminded us that private life, private enterprise and personal freedom depend on what the public provides.

"The Internet didn't get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.... when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together. There are some things, just like fighting fires, we don't do on our own.... So we say to ourselves, ever since the founding of this country ... there are some things we do better together. That's how we funded the GI Bill. That's how we created the middle class. That's how we built the Golden Gate Bridge or the Hoover Dam. That's how we invented the Internet. That's how we sent a man to the moon. We rise or fall together as one nation and as one people ... I still believe in that idea. You're not on your own, we're in this together.... If you were successful, ... somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive."

Conservatives are up in arms about Obama's statement and for good reason. In the conservative worldview, the public's role for personal success is largely hidden or ignored. Instead, conservatives have a different vision of what America should be: everyone ought to look out for him- or herself - for example, buy your own protection for your life via privatized health care and buy your own empowerment to succeed via privatized education.

Obama is acknowledging an important truth about American private life and enterprise: It builds on the public. From the beginning, the American public jointly created the means for knowledge, health, commerce and recreation: Schools and libraries, hospitals, public roads, bridges, clean water and sewers, a federal banking system, a system of interstate commerce, public buildings and records, a court system mostly for commercial disputes, an Army and a Navy, police and firemen, public playgrounds and parks The American public has always provided such things to promote private business and individual freedom.

More recently, the public has added funding for food safety and public health; university research; telecommunications; urban development; and subsidies for corporate profit in corporate-run industries like energy, agribusiness and military contracting. There are thousands of ways, large and small, in which the public, all of us acting together, provides the essentials for individual freedom and opportunity and thriving businesses. 

That is what President Obama meant when he recently said, "If you've got a business - you did not build that," where "that" refers to the totality of what the public provides that empowered you, making available the conditions required for personal success.

The president states a simple truth here. Business owners across America do not build their own roads and bridges, sewers and water systems; they do not single-handedly maintain the health of their employees; they do not finance their own court system; and they did not build their own Internet to market and sell their products. The public provides these things, together. The government manages our shared financial resources to make these things happen. That's the government's job.

Obama could have communicated this fact better. When he says, "If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life," he does not stress the fact that the public is a commonly organized and maintained system that is built and maintained by all of us together, in a shared effort to protect and empower Americans to live freely and to thrive in their private and professional lives.

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