Success rooted in self-interest

Rik Dalvit/For the Capital Press


A debate has raged over the last few weeks about who is responsible when a business succeeds. Is it the entrepreneur or the collective contributions of the community through the actions of the government?

Collective action plays a part, but the heart of success lies with the individual.

President Barack Obama gave a speech July 17 in Virginia where he challenged the notion that successful people are responsible for their fortune.

"If you've been successful, you didn't get there on your own," he said. "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."

While admitting that people succeed on their own initiative, the president contends that successful business owners were helped along the way. They were inspired by a great teacher, or have taken advantage of the roads, bridges and other infrastructure paid for by taxpayers.

The president's purpose was to bolster his argument that successful people and businesses -- or at least those who earn $200,000 or more per year -- should pay even higher taxes than they now do. That any money raised by increasing those taxes would go to teachers or expanding the infrastructure rather than being transferred to the recipients of various government aid programs is debatable.

We have to concede that many successful people have been inspired by a teacher. Many more have followed the example of their parents. Those who lead -- the Edisons, the Jobses, the Fords -- often find their inspiration in the genius they were born with.

There's no denying that roads and bridges are invaluable to any business. But if roads and bridges made businesses and individuals successful, it would be universal. We would argue the infrastructure is the product of success, as it is financed with public money that had its origins in commercial activity.

Are successful farmers, ranchers and agri-business owners smarter than the hired help? Do they work harder? Not necessarily, but it is often the case. The quality that sets them apart is their willingness to assume the financial risk, not only to bask in the glow of success but bear the responsibility for failure.

The success individual businesses and their owners achieve is the result of their dogged pursuit of their own self-interest. A rancher may raise beef for hungry customers, but that is the means to his real goal of providing for his family.

The president would argue that we owe our success in large measure to our collective effort as represented by the actions of government. It is, in fact, the product of millions of individuals who, in pursuing their own self-interest, create opportunity for their fellow citizens who are in turn pursuing the same.

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