Though many issues divide the Republican and Democratic parties, one of the most crucial (and unfortunately, least understood) concerns the line drawn between individual and society. In a recent speech, the sitting president controversially remarked,
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.
But despite Republican disapprobation, some credit must be given to President Obama’s statement: perhaps never in human history has division of labor been so pronounced, nor the mutual dependency of human beings so obvious. For every developed civilization permits a high degree of specialization, reducing (or depending on one’s perspective, exalting) men into increasingly specified forms of production and service, and thus dependency upon others for survival. Yet because money is the primary method of exchange amongst the highly civilized, being introduced to the citizen practically upon birth and rarely having its legitimacy questioned, men eventually dissociate the goods they buy from the labor associated with the goods’ production. They receive their paychecks, and buy from merchants; they are unacquainted with the producers, and so almost believe themselves capable of producing wealth magically; they were born into wealth, and so believe wealth natural.
The president’s (partially) sensible consideration disperses the illusion of total independence; to look below, one finds carpet and socks made by others, to look ahead a monitor and a skillfully crafted wall behind it. Above, one finds lights connected to wires, wires which are connected to telephone poles, poles connected to power stations, stations run by men who wear uniforms made by clothiers and eat lunches made by farmers, those lunches sold by men running restaurants. To say that Americans are independent smacks of arrogance; but yet to say that we live collectively reeks of naivety.
A man may perhaps be incapable of breaking the next technological or productive barrier without a just community of like-minded inventors, entrepreneurs, and clerks; but without his particular specialization, without chasing a peculiar dream (the very essence of genius), perhaps none of them would find employment in their niche. Society needs all kinds of laborers, machinery, and infrastructure, useless in themselves, but impressive when orchestrated by individual entrepreneurial visions. Therefore, though specialization and dependence are the products of civilization, the maintenance and advancement of civilization are entirely dependent upon specialization; the citizen’s community affords him economic individuality, but his individuality permits a healthy community.
So though we may look around us and see the effects of other men’s labor, and thus predicate our quality of life somewhat upon collectivity, every product, every business, every nation was once a dream in the mind of a single dreamer; the physical realities we experience were at one time secrets, born in the immaterial wellspring known as the human spirit. The table at which we dine may have required many men to make, but perhaps only a single man to imagine. The cups from which we drink may have been produced in a factory operated by hundreds, but were conceived in a single moment of individual inspiration. If we’re to thank our neighbors for what they help enable, let us do so; but let us never bestow the glory of inspiration upon the masses themselves. That triumph is reserved for the single man, just as we award the medal of honor to the deserving soldier, knowing all the while that wars are won by collective forces.
Our president spoke correctly when he said we should be thankful to others; he greatly erred about what we owe in gratitude. Each and every above contributor already received compensation for their voluntary labors and ingenuity; in prestige, some received heavily; in money they acquired a share of the national wealth, a right to goods for public sale. But if we’re to say that we as a society only owe to the productive, the more natural conclusion of Obama’s statement, we would be greatly mistaken. For if men consider the purpose of governmental collectivity, that individual weakness begs for justice, they’ll undoubtedly find that collectivity’s great benefit lies in liberty, an emboldening of economic individualism. What we owe to our collective society is not compensation for labor — since compensation is already paid by those who most greatly benefit from the labor — but justice, a defense of God-given rights, security to the truly defenseless, and liberty to the righteous. We primarily owe justice as a collective, we owe compensation as individuals; and when societies are just, protecting individuals in self and property, societies collectively reap the fruits of individual ingenuity.
But when the boundary between “I” and “we” is blurred, when men wrongly share praise for individual triumphs, believing society responsible for individual success, what can be the result, but disaster? Capital will be robbed of its most capable owners, and given to those whose careers depend not upon finishing programs, but upon starting them. When every success is believed collective, so will every failure be; the ignorant public will upon every malady seek a cure, and greater and greater expenses, until their children are indebted, and worse pains come upon them. And when the pain of failure becomes a public concern, justice will become public instead of individual; men will think of justice as belonging to cities and companies and groups instead of single persons, and rob their parts for the good of an ever-ailing whole.
Consider, dear Americans, how closely — if not perfectly — this describes us! We mock our president, and yet obey his words as Gospel truth; we deride his leftism, and then vote for an “opposition” which champions it. The time for sense has come: let us define justice individually, according to the laws of nature and of nature’s God; let us restore states’ rights to counterbalance an impending federal collectivism; and let us have a healthy discussion about which infrastructural projects are too necessary and too large to leave in the hands of states, cities, and private investors. The present state of American affairs suggests we may not have much time left to discuss and fight, before all chances of reform have passed.