Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you've got a business -- you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen.
The system "allowed you to thrive." That is fundamentally non-Jeffersonian. You succeeded because a greater power -- the state -- bestowed its favor upon you. The setup, the whole reason for the argument, is Obama's contention that your wealth is not your creation, but an allowance from the state:
There are a lot of wealthy, successful Americans who agree with me -- because they want to give something back.
"You didn't build that" was the clincher that would justify the demand to "give something back." Not "give," but "give... back." The distinction is critical. Your wealth, he clearly and unmistakably asserts, is not your creation, it was given -- allowed -- by the state. And now the state wants some of it back. Refuse and you are denying the state its rightful claim to the wealth it "helped" you to create.
Whereas Jefferson believed that the people, their property, and their God-given rights were the preexisting condition for the creation of limited government, Obama believes that government is the preexisting condition for the creation of prosperity.
"That's how we created the middle class," he said. "We created." Collectively.
Except that is entirely wrong. American individuals created the first American middle class while subjects of King George III.
"In the early stages of a colony's settlement, rapid upward mobility was very common," historian Edwin Perkins wrote in The Economy of Colonial America. "Land was initially easy to acquire, and many families which started with little capital became relatively wealthy after two or three generations. Many indentured servants, who served out terms of 4 to 7 years of quasi-slavery, went on to become tenant farmers, later bought land, and eventually accumulated sizable wealth, sometimes joining the colonial elite."
The "system" did not create America's middle class. The free middle class rebelled against the king to create the system, and their own wealth. Does Obama think that John Hancock, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, and John Adams owed their wealth to the British government? Does he think King George "allowed" them to prosper?
Obama's one nugget of a point -- that infrastructure facilitates commerce -- is disputed by no one. Nor does any serious person dispute that everyone should pay for that infrastructure or for the essential services the people have tasked the government with providing. It is a fundamentally American principle.
"Every man is under the natural duty of contributing to the necessities of the society; and this is all the laws should enforce on him," Jefferson wrote to F.W. Gilmer in 1816.
What had always separated our "system," to use the president's word, from other systems was not that we had fire departments and teachers and roads and bridges. Europe has much grander examples of all of those. What we had, and others did not, was a tight constraint on the scope of government action and a population that is extraordinarily industrious and entrepreneurial.
That industrious population voted to create commerce-facilitating infrastructure, and paid the taxes to build it. That their descendants benefited from those investments in no way obligates them to "give back" to the government additional shares of their wealth. There is nothing to return, for nothing of theirs belongs to the state. Their wealth, such as it may be from household to household, is theirs by right. They earned it. That they did so by using the infrastructure their forebears built on their behalf gives no one a claim to anything they created. As Jefferson wrote, all citizens have a "duty of contributing to the necessities of society," that is, of paying taxes, but that comes from their membership in society. That duty does not expand because the state desires expansion, or because one has partaken of societal benefits already paid for.
Obama's belief in the state's claim to the wealth individual Americans created through their own initiative is absolutely plain. It ought to have been a slam-dunk issue for the Romney campaign. And yet the campaign bungled its response. This was the perfect issue for Romney to address personally. Romney's likability is low. A lot of Americans have not warmed to him. This was his chance to speak directly to the American people in a calm, reassuring way to show that he understands them and President Obama does not.