Obama on Small Business
| Peter Klein |
President Obama’s gaffe about business creation — “If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen” — has been met with the usual reactions. Defenders claim he simply used infelicitous language to describe the vital role of government in providing essential goods, while critics point out, for instance, that he didn’t even get it right on the Golden Gate Bridge (which received no federal money). I actually feel sorry for the guy. It was an pretty dumb thing to say, politically, and may end up hurting him more than Romney’s role in “exporting American jobs” (gag) hurts the challenger.
The idea that no one builds a business on his own, without help from other people, is in once sense trivially true, as Leonard Read never tired of explaining. No one person knows how to make a pencil, let alone a microprocessor. As a defense of government spending on infrastructure (not only roads and bridges, but things like the internet), it falls completely flat. Of course some entrepreneurs profit from government spending on infrastructure — not just directly (e.g., road contractors, engineering companies hired by ARPA, etc.) but indirectly (from lower transportation or transmission cost, net of tax payments). But such anecdotes do not at all “justify” the expenditures. As I once wrote about the internet:
[E]nthusiasts tend to forget the fallacy of the broken window. We see the internet. We see its uses. We see the benefits it brings. We surf the web and check our email and download our music. But we will never see the technologies that weren’t developed because the resources that would have been used to develop them were confiscated by the Defense Department and given to Stanford engineers. Likewise, I may admire the majesty and grandeur of an Egyptian pyramid, a TVA dam, or a Saturn V rocket, but it doesn’t follow that I think they should have been created, let alone at taxpayer expense.
A gross benefit to particular entrepreneurs from a government program does not, by itself, demonstrate net benefits to the taxpaying community. Vague references to spillovers and multipliers may sound good in a press conference, but are no substitute for serious analysis.