Romney’s “I Built That” vs. Obama’s Teamwork

Modern civilization proves which philosophy works.

Last week, the newswires crackled with audio of the latest round in an increasingly heated war of words between President Barack Obama and his presumptive challenger in the November general election, Mitt Romney. While the incidentals of their verbal tit-for-tat were (as they so often are) exaggerated for the benefit of political expediency, the root of the exchange reflects two profoundly different versions of the human experience.

You’re probably familiar with the particulars of the brouhaha—which sprouted from comments the President made at a campaign rally in Roanoke, Virginia on July 13th. Speaking off the cuff on the role of government in society, Obama spoon-fed his opponent a nice juicy sound bite to misquote. Here’s a snippet, complete with the offending line (cue gong):

“If you were 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 that 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 President’s mistake was not in his message but in its delivery. He fumbled the ball. No one would argue with that. But no matter how much the GOP would like us to believe it, Obama was not telling small-business owners that the fruit of their blood, sweat and tears doesn’t merit personal recognition; he was trying to make the point that success doesn’t happen in a vacuum. And he was speaking truth.

Here’s a fact: Last year the federal government funneled in excess of $30 billion into small-business coffers through Small Business Administration lending programs, more than any year since the agency’s creation by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1953. Through access to capital, procurement opportunity, management and technical assistance, and regulatory advocacy, more than a million small businesses benefit every year from the SBA and its resource partner programs, according to the agency.

Factor in the average $65 billion spent annually on infrastructure like highways and bridges to get all those privately made goods from here to there; funding for federal and state courts that handle contract disputes and bankruptcies; and the billions of dollars in federal contracts issued each year—nearly a quarter of which are earmarked for small businesses—and it’s hard to imagine how a single widget gets made in this country without benefiting in some way from governmental largesse.

But that’s not really the point. President Obama’s authentically American vision of a country that works together toward common goals for mutual benefit elicited such a strong reaction from the right because it challenges the great American myth of rugged individualism—a myth that has been handed down from generation to generation in taxpayer-funded schools built by publicly compensated construction crews that are organized into communal labor unions. It’s also a myth upon which the entire GOP platform resides—a platform, by the way, that would have kept us living in caves if early man had chosen it as his guide.

The fact is we owe our success as a species to our ability to overcome our individualistic impulses and work as a team, sometimes to the detriment of our own individual well-being. Biologists call this “eusociality,” and science tells us I wouldn’t be tapping on this keyboard right now if we hadn’t evolved to embrace it.

It’s a miracle we did, for eusociality is not exactly common. Only a handful of the world’s most successful species are eusocial, and most of them are insects. Humans are one of just three mammalian species that exhibit the trait, and the other two live underground.

In his book The Social Conquest of Earth, the renowned sociobiologist E.O. Wilson describes eusociality as the trait that separates the winners from the losers in the animal kingdom, and the winners have done quite well for themselves:

“[T]he twenty thousand known species of eusocial insects, mostly ants, bees, wasps, and termites, account for only 2 percent of the approximately one million known species of insects. Yet this tiny minority of species dominate the rest of the insects in their numbers, their weight, and their impact on the environment … Among creatures larger than microorganisms and roundworms, eusocial insects are the little things that run the territorial world.”

On a much larger scale, human society mirrors this reality. According to Wilson, competition has played a role in our success, but it wasn’t competition within societal units, it was competition between them that helped civilization advance from sticks and rocks to airplanes and smartphones. Societies that foment intragroup adversity through classism, racism and other forms of disunity inevitably fail. In other words, “every man for himself” eventually leads to no men left.

So what should this tell us about the role of government in modern civilization? To me it says government has a responsibility to promote social unity by championing the group nature of our successes, especially when they are under attack by forces that would divide us (which, in his own imperfect way, is what the President was doing in Roanoke.)

It also helps explain why things invariably go to shit when people (and corporations) are given the opportunity and encouragement to get greedy and selfish with no consideration of the broader social consequences of their actions. In a proactive sense I take that as evidence that the purpose of government is to lead by example by instituting policies that bring out the best in us, not the worst. It’s already been established that our most enduring quality, and the one that got us this far, is our ability to put our differences aside and succeed as a team. Unfortunately we are dealing today with two competing paradigms in this country, only one of which has long-term tenability.

If the United States hopes to remain the most powerful nation on the global stage (and some, though not me, might say it’s already too late for that) we can’t be offended by the implication that our successes are as much a group effort as an individual one. We need to champion that. I’m not talking about “group think” here; we are a nation founded on the principle of a voice (and a vote) for every man and woman, and that must be protected at all cost—even with our lives if necessary. Rugged individualism has an important place in the American story, but we need to start wearing it as a badge of honor instead of carrying it like a banner into battle against our fellow citizens.