The Elves in the Mountains

I’ve noticed some internet commentary on President Obama’s “you didn’t do it on your own,” statement and decided to share my thoughts on it.

Nearly every time I’ve seen this, both here on the blog, and from a former colleague of mine, the argument has been that the statement is simply wrong. The entrepreneurs of the world did in fact do it on their own. By the sweat of their brow. Working long hours. Taking all the risks. When I see this argument advanced, it is usually paired with an anecdote of working for a small business and witnessing the struggles brought on by intense competition.

Let me share my bona fides here: my father was a small-business owner. I’ve worked for entrepreneurs during the dot-com bubble of the late 1990’s, worked as the sole employee of a consulting firm, and have “hit the bricks” and knocked on doors as an independent contractor. While now I enjoy the life of an ivory-tower elite (the kind that your parents warned you about), I have intimate knowledge with the world of small business. Whatever success I’ve had – I can promise you I didn’t do it on my own.

There’s a wonderful children’s story (one of my oldest daughter’s favorites) that illustrates this well. In it, a chicken wants to get some water, but she has no cup. She asks a tree for a cup, which he would gladly trade, for some cleaning service. In order to get someone to do that, she would have to trade something. But in order to get the something to trade, she’d have to trade for something else from yet another person. Since it’s a children’s story, it goes on for quite a while. The cow will give her bell collar in exchange for corn, and the farmer will give corn in exchange for a plow. The smith will make the plow, but only if he gets a shipment of iron, and on it goes. The turning point of the story is when the chicken gets the iron. She has to ask the elves that live in the mountains. They take pity on her, give her a load of iron, and bada-bing bada-boom – the chain of commerce begins and she finally gets her water. The insight of the story is that we don’t create out of nothing. In our wonderful world of exchange we often forget that the raw material of exchange (in this case, the iron ore) comes to us miraculously.

Take the insight out of the childish realm of talking chickens and apply it to life. What is it that starts the chain of commerce? Is it something that we do “on our own” or does it come to us miraculously? Well, the metal in the ground is miraculous. So is the water that irrigates the crops, as well as the sunlight and the soil. Even my own ability to go work is a miracle. I’ve been sick enough to be unable to get up from bed. Fortunately, it was for a very short period of time. But there are many who have not been so lucky. The miracle of being an able-bodied man is something they will never experience. But this idea shouldn’t be surprising. John Locke’s famous description of property is the mixture of labor and nature. That is, when we mix our labor with nature, private property is the result. But both our ability to labor and nature itself are things that we didn’t create and cannot, ultimately, control. True, the will to labor, create, and extend – that will belongs to us. But the body and the land are gifts from a divine hand.

As competitors in a market we are like grizzly bears hunting salmon. We station ourselves along the river, fight each other for the best spots, get there early and stay late, watch patiently, and endure the midday sun. If everything goes well, we are full of fine seafood by the time the day is done. But we catch salmon that we did not breed in a river that we do not own.

The most self-reliant I’ve ever been was when I worked as a door-to-door salesman earning straight commission. If I didn’t sell, I didn’t eat – period. In one sense, it is true that I succeeded “by myself” with no help. But I drove on roads that were paid for by other, earlier taxpayers. I could fill up my car with gasoline that was plentiful. I didn’t have to worry much about being hijacked or kidnapped. Our society was stable and welcoming enough for people to invite me into their homes so I could show them the products. The laws prevented my employers from cheating me out of my commission. The product itself required literacy to use, and even though many cannot read or write very well, they know the basics well enough thanks to failing public education. There are countless other things that, without them, I would not have been able to sell anything, much less turn a profit.

Is it too much to ask that we acknowledge those things?

7 responses

  1. Russ, I think that what has been so offensive to people (including me) about the president’s remarks is that he seemed to deny that there is anything special about being an entrepreneur. There was the language of (paraphrasing) “well, lots of people are smart and lots of people work hard.” Those who argue for the redistributive state often seem to think that people who succeeded did so through magic. It must be acknowledged that the small business owner has a hard road. Being the person with the pressure to meet payroll means something. And what it means is emphatically not that this person should be looked at by the state as a potential honeypot.

    The reason we have this wonderful system is because we have had entrepreneurs. One day, it will be entrepreneurs who will make Africa great.

  2. And to be more precise about my own position, I wrote this:

    “The president can build up the role of government all he wants. I concede that it is important. But he really should not downplay the contribution of the small businessmen and women who do so much to make our country great.”

  3. Thanks for your comments, Hunter. I used too broad a brush when including you in the “it’s simply wrong” characterization. My hope is only that those who dislike the policies of the current administration (and I’m one of those), not forget our deep dependence on others (both personally, and through the state).

  4. We need the state. The real argument is over what we need it to do. I am in the camp who believes that the state needs to establish certain foundational elements and then not do too much after that. Property rights? Yes. Rule of law? Yes. A national infrastructure? More questionable, but I think yes.

    I brought up Africa. If only it had the items I just mentioned, the entrepreneurs of the continent would make tremendous strides.

  5. Russell, thanks for your viewpoint. I think you are right. However, I do not think that most of the president’s critics disagree with you. Practically everyone acknowledges that there is a certain interdependence between man, neighbor and nature. Free-market advocates rely on this self-evident fact. If the president was merely stating the obvious, then there’s no reason to complain. But given his political philosophy, it is difficult not to interpret his comments as suggesting that people OWE their success to government actions. He doesn’t mention family or neighbors, only government employees, projects and services. The logic is that successful people are obliged by social justice to give their “fair share”, which was exactly the point of his speech.

  6. I wonder if the lesson from the children’s book you described is really appropriate. The chicken ultimately has to depend on charity from someone to get the ball rolling? The iron was available due to the sweat of the elves. The chicken could have traded an egg for it, and then the whole market chain would have continued.
    Virtually everyone shares in the kind of miracles you describe. Rivers, roads, trees, ore — they are there for everyone, but most people are content to just use what’s available to feed their own needs and wants. It’s the entrepreneurs who use them to build something that was not there before, and so they generate wealth that benefits others. It is private enterprise that provides the means to build infrastructure, not vice versa.

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