11/04/2012 01:28 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

We Built That

President Obama's "You didn't build that" comment inspired much bluster from the talking heads. We almost had a substantive discussion, but the red meat was too delicious for the commentators to resist. Still, before this important election, we should pause and ask a hard question:

Who built what? Who deserves the credit?

Am I the only relevant "cause" of my Harvard Law degree, or the sales I've generated, or the business I'm building? Or are my teachers, parents and mentors? How about the government? Society in general? Luck? God? A mere moment's reflection suggests some complex combination.

I suppose I would like some credit. My past achievements and current projects all have required enormous effort. I continue to harbor big ambitions, and I'm investing a lot of risk, blood, sweat and tears. And if I were not rewarded for my efforts, I might not even bother.

But only self-worship could convince me I deserve all the credit. Consider Luck. Suppose I were born into a society of hunter gatherers, or an agrarian culture. I was a wimpy kid, and I don't seem to have a fast-twitch muscle fiber anywhere in my body. Would I have survived? Would Kanye West or Michael Phelps have risen to the top if born in Nepal or Sierra Leone? What if, as Malcolm Gladwell has wondered, Bill Gates had been born just ten years later, or a thousand years earlier, or his parents had neglected him? What if Rockefeller had died before the discovery of steam power? What if Da Vinci was an illiterate goat herder who never saw a paintbrush? When we are born into a society that happens to handsomely reward our greatest strengths, we can't credibly claim we deserved that it be so. We might rightly be proud of how we have adapted to that society, but luck plays an enormous part in whether our talents will make us money and even whether we are adaptable.

Indeed, our inborn and cultivated traits are mostly beyond our control. I'm told I always "reached for the sky," even as a five-year-old. Did I earn that ambition? I certainly didn't merit my native intelligence, or my unusual ability to spot an opportunity. Even my work ethic was largely cultivated by someone else -- my parents. Of course I have played my part. I studied, sought out mentors, worked hard and have taken great risks. But my faculties are for the most part gifts from God, genetics and my mentors. Though I've hit some rough patches, and even done some pretty cool stuff, the truth is that I'm one lucky guy.

Even if we are born gifted into a wealthy society with decent abilities, many of life's greatest barriers are as random as a role of the dice. Our parents' economic status plays a pivotal role in our future opportunities. Thankfully, some of us defy the expectations of our birth. But that doesn't mean that those expectations weren't reasonable to begin with. One of the most powerful predictors of our income throughout life is the wealth of our parents. The U.S. lags Germany, Norway, Canada, Finland, Denmark and France in intergenerational mobility, in some cases dramatically. Our racial status often strongly predicts our chances at attaining financial success, finishing high school or spending time in jail. It's hard to imagine poor black baby boys having earned those prospects.

Undoubtedly the role of the state is also paramount, as the president suggested. Without roads, sewers, airports and dredges, or free trade across state borders, poverty and disease would afflict us. Without rule harmonization, or regulations requiring transparency, clean food, water and drugs, or regimes designed to force businesses to pay full cost for their activities, markets would barely exist. Without stable currencies, safe borders, property rights, police and the judiciary or expensive constitutional constraints like the separation of powers and due process, an oppressive environment would destroy our incentive to invest or work hard. Without civil rights, redistribution or a social safety net to prevent crushing losses, and an educated populace prepared to work and buy goods in a competitive economy, opportunities would increasingly elude more and more people, ultimately impoverishing America. These institutions are expensive, and the government regularly screws up. But our success -- my success -- depends on them too.

Given my reliance on others I prefer to say "we built it." Not me, not you, not luck and not the government. Our forefathers' place and our own role in each others' stories is rich, overlapping, and impossible to parse. I don't mean to suggest we should stop celebrating hard work and success. Celebration empowers people and without empowered people, nothing gets built. Neither does it follow from the above that we should soak the rich with obscenely high taxes. These are complex questions.

But perhaps those of us lucky enough to be so handsomely rewarded for our efforts should get over ourselves when the conversation turns toward taxation. Instead of responding to progressive tax rates like we're being mugged, we should count our blessings -- we were born into families or communities that offered mentors we didn't earn, with genes we didn't merit, into a society that happens to reward the activities we are good at. And our efforts worked in large part because of other people's efforts too. Better to be grateful and not bring up merit, what is ours or what we have "earned," else our tax rates double.

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