I was so distracted by the president's demeanor as he was reproaching the business community that his words didn't quite register. I had to go back to read what he actually said, and it was worse than I thought:
“If You’ve Got a Business – You Didn’t Build That! Somebody Else Made That Happen.”
Well, apparently it bears repeating: When I, an entrepreneur or businessman, start a business, it usually takes years of persistent work before there is any return on investment: contrary to what you may have heard from modern-liberal bureaucrats, you cannot succeed in business without really trying. I suppose it's true that such an endeavor wouldn't have succeeded had I not been standing on centuries of mercantile tradition and experience, or for that matter had I not had electricity and running water. But that is only to state the obvious.
What, then, was the president getting at? Besides belittling the aspirations of the business class, what was the subtext of his remarks? That government provides the conditions for a civil society that make entrepreneurship possible? I think we already knew that. Newsflash, Mr. President: to the extent that I contribute to the commonweal, pay taxes, keep abreast of the issues, and vote, I am a member of that government. In other words, the agent or silent partner of my labors, the "somebody else [who] made that happen," was me.
Pericles is always relevant in this regard. In his funeral oration, as presented by Thucydides, he said,
Here each individual in interested not only in his own affairs but in the affairs of the state as well: even those who are mostly occupied with their own business are extremely well-informed on general politics — this is a peculiarity of ours: we do not say that a man who takes no interest in politics is a man who minds his own business; we say that he has no business here at all.
Perhaps this is what Lincoln was also getting at in the final flourish of the Gettysburg Address: "that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."
There has always been some mystery surrounding his use of the words, "of the people." It is obvious that a government by the people is one run by commoners (as opposed to the landed aristocracy), and that a government for the people is one devised for the benefit of everyman (not just a hereditary class of kings or oligarchs), but what exactly did Lincoln mean by a government of the people?
I believe he recognized that insofar as we work, pay taxes, stay informed, and vote, we are not simply passive participants in the democratic process, but constitutive of democratic government itself.
So why do politicians insist on the obsolete dichotomy of government and governed? Is it because the citizenry need leaders to translate their will into effective policies? Or is this an elitist plot to exclude everyman from the esoteric operation of government? If the latter, I have a few words for you prodigies of incumbency occupying the plush seats of government: you didn't build that bridge or that superhighway. Somebody else made that happen.