You Didn't Build That Bridge, Mr. President

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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.




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Up in Smoke

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With the recent release of yet another dismal jobs report, commentators in the MSM have begun to ask, “Why aren’t jobs being created?” They should have been asking themselves this question for the last 40 months, but, hey, better late than never.

Yet the possibility that the explosive growth in regulation might play a role in deterring job growth is not something they spend much time discussing.

It should be.

A recent story gives us a fresh illustration of the role that regulation plays in destroying jobs. (By “regulation,” I mean all increases in statutory law, rulings by regulatory agencies, and expansions of common law aimed at controlling business activity.) It concerns a business that I, a nonsmoker, never heard of, one that has never been destroyed by regulation.

It turns out that in the face of huge taxes on cigarettes produced by the major tobacco companies, many cigarette smokers started frequenting small stores that owned “roll-your-own” (RYO) cigarette machines. The RYO machines allowed customers to buy loose tobacco, especially pipe tobacco (taxed at a far lower rate than manufactured cigarettes) and paper tubes in the shop, and use the RYO machine to churn out a carton of cigarettes in just a few minutes.

For a devoted smoker, the attraction of RYO shops is clear. They save about half the price of regular cigarettes. And they allow smokers to blend different and more flavorful tobaccos together, and use both tobacco and paper that are free from many of the chemical additives.

But naturally, the attractiveness of the shops angered two powerful groups. First, it pissed off puritan “progressives” who just cannot stand people smoking, and are always conducting an anti-smoking jihad. Not content with insane taxes on people who choose to consume a lawful product, they want to stop it altogether.

Second, it pissed off the major cigarette makers — aka Big Tobacco — who hate seeing customers choosing to buy cheaper in little shops around the country.

So in a classic case of rentseeking (businesses manipulating the regulatory system to hurt their competition, rather than producing a better or cheaper product) Big Tobacco found a politician — the truly execrable Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT) — to insert a small amendment to a massive transportation bill that redefines RYO shops so that they fall under the same category as Big Tobacco cigarette manufacturers, thus imposing a massive tax increase on them — one that is intended to destroy them, and probably will.

Baucus of course was happy to do this for the campaign cash Altria and other Big Tobacco companies shoveled at him. And those Big Tobacco companies are happy to stomp out of existence a group of little competitors. And Obama — who never met a regulation he didn’t like — was happy to sign the bill.

But the small businesses that bought the RYO machines have been screwed. Over a thousand of these machines (they cost over $36,000 each) were purchased, but are now virtually useless.

So, for example, Robert Weissen and his partners, who own a chain of six RYO shops in Las Vegas (cheekily named “Sin City Cigarette Factory”), says he will have to shut down the machines and lay off 40 people.

There are eight million regulations in our “progressive” (i.e., neosocialist) economy. This has been the story of just one of them.




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