In a presidential campaign of substance, one great question that the candidates -- and nation -- could debate is this: How much does economic success stem from individual initiative and talent, versus the collective support offered by society?
If individuals are all-important, smaller government and fewer public supports might make sense. But the opposite is true if it is society that structures opportunity.
This is a classic debate in political economy, one that goes back to the earliest days of capitalism, and it's more relevant than ever in America today. Two weeks ago, President Obama put the topic of success squarely on the agenda. He said at a campaign event:
If you've been successful, you didn't get there on your own. You didn't get there on your own. I'm always struck by people who think, "Well, it must be 'cause I was just so smart." There are a lot of smart people out there. "It must be because I worked harder than everybody else." Let me tell you something: There are a whole bunch of hard-working people out there. . . . If you are 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 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 then 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.
Obama's comments seem to veer heavily toward a collective explanation of success, before settling on a balanced account of how people get ahead.
If Mitt Romney wants to dispute this balanced view with a libertarian argument that public supports don't matter to success -- or even make it harder to succeed -- that would be useful for voters to hear.
Instead, though, the Romney campaign cherry picked the collectivist parts of Obama's quote and launched a series of attack ads that make the president look like he doesn't believe in individual initiative. So instead of having an honest debate on an important issue, we're having a demagogic one. No surprise there, given the nature of modern campaigning.
What is surprising, though, is that the Romney campaign would pick a businessman named Jack Gilchrist to help carry the argument that individual initiative is all important. Gilchrist is president of Gilchrist Metal Fabricating Co., Inc., which describes itself as "a leading manufacturer of precision metal fabrications and machined components." He is featured in a Romney ad, now playing in swing states, saying he and his father built the company and complaining about being demonized.
Gilchrist's business includes many large-scale projects -- that, as it happens, are sometimes supported by public dollars. For example, one large contract entailed fabricating over a million dollars of stainless steel for the exterior of the Smith Center, a new performing arts center in Las Vegas. According to its website, construction of the Smith Center was made possible by a public-private partnership that included a $170 million commitment from the City of Las Vegas. Gilchrist has also done subcontracting work for the U.S. Department of the Navy. And the company has done work for oil companies engaged in exploration and drilling, an activity heavily subsidized by tax dollars.
In addition, according to ABC News, Jack Ghilchrist "acknowledged that in the 1980s the company received a U.S. Small Business Administration loan totaling 'somewhere south of' $500,000, and matching funds from the federally-funded New England Trade Adjustment Assistance Center."
Did Gilchrist go to public schools? Did his employees? Are his products shipped over publicly constructed roads? I'd bet the answer is yes to all of the above.
Finally, in a profile written after the Romney ads aired, Jack Gilchrist noted that his firm's website brings in a lot of business from well beyond New England, where the company is based. Surely he might have paused to reflect that President Obama specifically mentioned the Internet as a government-backed invention that has helped businesses?
Another businessman featured in in a Romney web ad, Dennis Sollmann, the owner of Sollmann Electric Company based in Ohio, also criticized the president even as he ignored government's role in his own success. Sollmann said in the ad about Obama's remarks:
"I mean, I'm thinking, 'You've got to be kidding me. He was trying to say: 'Hey, you didn't build that business on your own. The government helped you build it.' And that's what ticked me off more than anything. Mr. President, unfortunately you have no idea how we here in Midwestern Ohio have to try to run a small business from daylight till night."
As it turns out, though, Sollman Electric has benefited from several million dollars worth of government contracts, the Huffington Post reports.