Joseph Knippenberg offers an astute analysis of why President Obama’s “You didn’t build that” comment is problematic, even when understood in context.
In The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith offers an account of the transtion from feudalism to freedom in terms of the changes in relationships of dependence. Where the retainer and the serf are dependent upon the patronage of one lord, the craftsman and the merchant are dependent upon the patronage of numerous customers. They are thus functionally independent, not because they are utterly self-reliant, but because no one can exercise the influence over them that one lord can have over his retainers.
By insisting in an exaggerated fashion on our dependence upon government, by overlooking the ways in which multiple sources of support in civil society and the marketplace afford us a kind of independence, President Obama would, in effect, turn the clock backward. For him, the transaction that seems to matter the most is between the officeholder dispensing what can only amount to patronage and those who look to him for the things they need. Tammany Hall and the various machines that ran Chicago politics come to mind here, But in those days, you could escape from New York and Chicago, seeking greater opportunities and less dependence outside the city limits. What the President seems to have in mind is much greater in scope and much more pervasive in its reach. In squeezing civil society and in effacing the distinction between levels of government, the President’s vision would seem to leave little room for the development or maintenance of a rightly ordered relationship between the individual and the community.