Who is Responsible for What You Do?
By Joel F. Wade - July 20, 2012

"He didn't invent iron ore and blast furnaces, did he?"


"Rearden. He didn't invent smelting and chemistry and air compression. He couldn't have invented his Metal but for thousands and thousands of other people. His Metal! Why does he think it's his? Why does he think it's his invention? Everybody uses the work of everybody else. Nobody ever invents anything."

She said, puzzled, "But the iron ore and all those other things were there all the time. Why didn't anybody else make that Metal, but Mr. Rearden did?"

~ Atlas Shrugged, Ch. 9, p. 1

There are two antithetical political visions of America fighting for the future of America but they are not simply political; they are philosophical, psychological and spiritual, reaching into the depths of what makes life worth living.

Success in America has always been admired because it has been connected with not only hard work but with the courage that it takes to decide to make something happen, to take responsibility for your own success or failure, to trust your own mind and abilities and to see your vision through to reality.

Nathaniel Branden's definition of self-esteem is "the reputation that you build with yourself." This is earned self-esteem; it has very little to do with your circumstances, or your history, your wealth, or what you were given. Self-esteem, as defined by Branden, is what you do with your circumstances, your history, your wealth and what you were given.

Such a definition is deeply woven within a personal and political philosophy of individualism, self-ownership and self-responsibility.

This is quite a contrast with the collectivist, progressive vision for America, epitomized by what we heard this week from the President of the United States – the political leader of the most meritocratic country in the history of the world:

"If you've been successful, you didn't get there on your own. You didn't get there on your own. I'm always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart. There are a lot of smart people out there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else. Let me tell you something – there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there."

This is a combination of a straw man argument and the labor theory of value. 'People think your success must be because you're smart.' No. Smart is a fixed trait; there are people who are smart who never do anything with their gifts. Smart may or may not be part of success but I don't know anybody who thinks that a person can be successful simply because they are smart.

Obama thinks that you think that, or at least that you'll buy his sleight of hand claiming that such an inborn trait is the only counter argument to a collectivist theory of production. He set up the idea that his opposition thinks being smart is what distinguishes successful people from unsuccessful people; then he knocked it down easily – because it's not true.

Obama likes to do this. He does it a lot: "Some people say that (something ridiculous), others say (something ridiculous); I say (something that sounds reasonable in comparison)… Voila! See how reasonable I am?!"

Then he uses that to set up a pitch for the labor theory of value with his comments on hard work. Here is a good definition of that theory:

"The Labor Theory of Value is a major pillar of traditional Marxian economics, which is evident in Marx's masterpiece, Capital (1867). The theory's basic claim is simple: the value of a commodity can be objectively measured by the average number of labor hours required to produce that commodity.

If a pair of shoes usually takes twice as long to produce as a pair of pants, for example, then shoes are twice as valuable as pants. In the long run, the competitive price of shoes will be twice the price of pants, regardless of the value of the physical inputs." (from The Library of Economics and Freedom.)

If you believe in the Marxist labor theory of value, then you would believe that the only other reason for differences in outcomes, besides the pure luck of innate gifts such as intelligence or talent, would be how much work you applied to a task.

In the same way that Ron Paul has been educating the viewing public on principles of free-market economics, Obama is teaching his viewing public that qualities of individual virtue and initiative are illusions that are irrelevant to success. Instead, we are all just ants in the colony, bees in the hive.

It is the collective, directed by the political power centers that make success possible; it is the collective, through the force of government, that makes things happen.

This is the philosophical contrast that we are faced with. The differences in these two visions for America reach deep into our fundamental psychology.

One, based on individual liberty and personal responsibility and supported by America's founding principles, holds that a person's success is a personal matter, based not on some external collective judgment but on his or her reputation with his or her self.

Wealth is created not from labor but because of the creation of new value where there was none before. You invent a product or write a new song or improve a service and that new value is worth somebody else's money. The value that you have created is worth more to somebody than the money you are asking for it and their money is worth more to you than the item or service you trade with them.

This is a win/win. You each come out of the exchange with greater value than you had when you went in and thus there is greater wealth in aggregate than existed before.

This goes to the heart of America's cultural character. It is the quality that has distinguished us as a culture to achieve the true greatness and near miraculous innovation and advancement that we enjoy today. Allowing people the freedom to own their own life liberates those who would make great things happen to benefit others in the service of their own personal ambition.

This philosophy of individualism turns a person inwards in the best of ways – to decide for yourself what you want to do, what sort of a person you want to be and what you are willing to do to achieve that. It also forces you to look at and evaluate others as individuals, not as members of a group. That means that each of us is responsible for who we are and for what we do.

We are influenced, of course, by others; we are in relationship with others; we are blessed with millennia of human cultural development and civilization. We certainly don't do everything in a vacuum – but this straw man extreme is what Obama is implying as the only option to his collectivist snake oil.

The psychological consequences of that collectivist vision is the kind of self-esteem that is so fragile and externally established that no child may have his t-ball game scores acknowledged, where multiple valedictorians grace the stage at graduation so as not to harm anybody's self-esteem, where certain words are banned and behavior is severely constrained to insure that nobody has hurt feelings.

But this is also the psychology of the tribe or gang, where showing disrespect or wearing the wrong item can get you killed, where egos are so fragile that any perceived insult to a member of one's race or group or "people" must be attacked and eliminated.

In such a psychology one's ego is fragile because it is not one's own.

At any given time, each of us has things that we have some control over and other things over which we have no control. When we focus on those things that we can control or influence and we bring our best efforts toward making good things happen toward those ends, we feel a sense of efficacy and satisfaction; we grow in competence, confidence and complexity. We are stronger, better people for each of these engagements – even if we fail, we know that we can get up and try again.

When we focus on what we do not have control or influence over, we can feel helpless, fragile and dependent on those who do have control – or claim they have – control.

If we are dealing with people in whom we trust and can count on, depending on them can actually be a wonderful feeling – I can relax because I know that my dentist knows what she's doing, my grocer has chosen his products well, my car manufacturer has engineered and built my car competently. I know that I can count on my teammates to do their job well and my coworkers in another department are skilled and professional; my neighbors are good and trustworthy people.

I can relax without feeling that I have to be in control of these situations because of the trust that these others have earned with me.

But in the real world, all of this is based on the individual competence and character of each of these individual people. If they had not personally earned my trust, I would not depend on them. There is nothing benevolent or magic or automatically trustworthy that is created by the forced collective action of government. To the contrary, we have every reason to believe that collective government action is the least reliable, least dependable form of human action.

Obama would have you believe that the only true value of human action is through the force of government. In his vision your life is not your own – and for him that is how it should be.

That is a vision that is antithetical to America's founding principles. It is a vision that denies you ownership of your own life. It is the vision of the Berlin Wall: designed to keep the State's property – its people – from being "stolen" from the State by leaving the country.

There is no moral equivalence between these two competing visions. One has been responsible for the greatest achievements and benevolence in human history; the other has been responsible for the greatest evils of mankind. Mr. Obama has just clarified which vision he supports.