The ‘You Didn’t Build That’ Speech Revisited
The ‘You Didn’t Build That’ Speech Revisited: Wieseltier Says Romney and Ryan are Lying
By Bill Vallicella @ The Maverick Philosopher (August 29, 2012)
In His Grief and Ours: Paul Ryan’s Nasty Ideal of Self-Reliance, Leon Wieseltier taxes Ryan and Mitt Romney with a simple lie (emphasis added): ‘It is no wonder that Ryan, and of course Romney, set out immediately to distort the president’s “you didn’t build that speech” in Roanoke, because in complicating the causes of economic achievement, and in giving a more correct picture of the conditions of entrepreneurial activity, Obama punctured the radical individualist mythology, the wild self-worship, at the heart of the conservative idea of capitalism. An honest reading of the speech shows that Romney and Ryan and their apologists are simply lying about it. The businessman builds his business, but he does not build the bridge without which he could not build his business. That is all. Is it everything? Surely it takes nothing away from the businessman, who retains his reason for his pride in his business. But it is not capitalist pride that Romney and Ryan are defending, it is capitalist pridefulness.’
Here is the key passage from Obama’s speech (emphasis added): ‘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 Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet. The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.’
What is the antecedent of the pronoun ‘that’ in the fifth sentence? The general rule, one admitting of exceptions, is that the antecedent of a pronoun is the noun or noun phrase immediately preceding it in the context in question. By that rule ‘business’ is the antecedent of ‘that’ and Obama is saying that business owners did not build their businesses. But since the rule allows exceptions, the context permits a charitable reading: ‘If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build the roads and bridges and other infrastructure without which your business would have been impossible.’
So there are two readings of Obama’s words. Both are permitted by the words themselves, but one is uncharitable and the other charitable. On the first what he is saying is plainly false: no business person built his business. On the second, what he is saying is trivially true and disputed by no one, namely, that no business could be built without various infrastructure already being in place.
On either reading, there is a serious problem for Obama and his apologists. Either Obama is saying something that everyone, including Obama, knows is false, in which case he is lying, or he is saying something that goes without saying, something disputed by no one. On the second reading Obama is committing a straw man fallacy: he is portraying his opponents as holding a position that none of them holds.
So if we are going to be charitable, then we ought to tax the president with a straw man fallacy. But there is worse to come. Behind the latter fallacy is a fallacy of false alternative. Obama assumes, without justification, that if you didn’t build the infrastructure without which your business could not exist, then government built it. Or, to put it in the form of a disjunction: Either you as an individual built the the roads and bridges and tools or government built them for you. But that is a false alternative. Not everything that arises collectively is brought about by the government. Obama confuses government with society. Only some of what we achieve collectively is achieved by government agency.
Uncharitably read, Obama is lying. Charitably read, his claim is doubly fallacious and doubly false. It is false that conservatives maintain a rugged individualism according to which each of us creates himself ex nihilo. And it is false that what is achieved collectively is achieved by government agency.
Now did Romney and Ryan lie about Obama’s message? No. They interpreted his words in a way that the English language permits. Their interpretation, of course, is uncharitable in the extreme. After all, no one really believes that business people pull themselves up out of nothing by their own bootstraps.
Is Wieseltier lying about Romney and Ryan? No, he is is just being stupid by failing to make an elementary distinction between sentence meaning and speaker’s meaning.
Obama’s gaffe will be and ought to be exploited to the hilt by the Republicans. Politics is not dispassionate inquiry but war conducted by other means.