In my last couple of posts I’ve talked about the characteristics of the people that came to the United States, bringing with them their work ethic, their ingenuity and drive, and how that contributed to our strong middle class (not to mention a strong economy and nation). There was obviously also a component of risk-taking and an adventurous spirit that contributed to their ultimate success. Think about what it would take to make a person pull up stakes completely and, often with just what they could carry, sail halfway around the world to a new country and start over. Now picture a whole society of them and it gives you some idea of who built this country. In addition to the people, there was obviously a land to come to that was rich with resources; if they had gone elsewhere it’s doubtful they would have been so successful.
However, in this post I want to talk about the role that a larger community has in personal success. During Obama’s final Presidential campaign, he was speaking to a group in Virginia, and in a broader discussion of the creation of wealth and the role of the government in the United States, he said “if you’ve got a business – you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.” Of course, his opponent (Mitt Romney) jumped all over that as evidence of Obama’s dismissal of hard work and the American Dream. Of course he was doing nothing of the sort; that comment was taken out of context. In the earlier part of that paragraph it is clear that he was making the point that no one is successful in a vacuum; we have an entire and comprehensive infrastructure that supports us all. I didn’t work on the new bridge that was built over the freeway near my house a couple of years ago, nor did I help write the code that make up the genesis of the internet. But I benefit from both of those things (and many more) every day.
In the context of these posts on success, the point I would like to make now is that in addition to an individual’s hard work, talent and drive, the contribution of the broader community cannot be ignored. In Obama’s (perhaps poorly worded) comment, he is referring to the role of the federal government. He talks about building roads and bridges that every business benefits from; imagine if everyone had to create their own rail system to get their goods to market. Or if everyone had to depend upon dirt roads. While it’s tempting to dismiss this as an obvious observation, in most of the rags-to-riches stories, short shrift is given to the role of anything but the Horatio Alger of the story. The government’s role in building an infrastructure to support commerce cannot be understated. And of course, in addition to the infrastructure created, supported and maintained by the government (federal as well as state and local), there is also the broader platform provided by society. The simplest and perhaps most obvious example is the marketplace itself. If no one can afford to buy the product or service I am producing or selling, there’s no way I am going to be able to build a successful business. So every business depends upon a market willing and able to pay for whatever the business is selling, and the stronger the market the greater the potential for success.
A strong middle class then becomes a platform for success for the entrepreneur. Henry Ford paid a significantly higher wage than anyone was used to paying in factories, simply so that more people would have the necessary disposable income to buy the cars Ford Motor Company was producing.
So circling back to Obama’s statement, the person who got rich needs the infrastructure provided by both society and the government. No one gets rich in a vacuum.