Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The joys of antencedents

The President is getting all sorts of abuse for saying this:
If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. 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. [Emphasis added]
I'll be honest, I think Obama just doesn't get it and I hope he loses in November. That said, I don't think the quote above is quite as bad as it sounds.

I think there is an antecedent problem here. The two instances of "that" in the last two sentences refers not back to businesses but roads and bridges. The point is not that people didn't build their businesses but that businesses didn't build roads.

That's still a stupid and uninformed thing to say. Stop for two seconds and ask yourself how many roads your town could could build without businesses and you'll see just how clueless Obama is. But it isn't quite the moral outrage that it might appear to be.

What is operating in the background here, by the way, is Marxism. Marx constructed a theory that said that profit was created not by a wide variety of forces marshalled through capital but by the workers. On that theory all the wealth that capital creates in the west is really the product of the working class. Marx thought that, well he thought a lot of crazy things, but his central thought was that if the working class created the wealth, then they also held the power to change society. He thought the problem was that they didn't know this because of a set of false ideas he called ideology that made it impossible for them to see the real power relations in society. If this ideology could be swept away, then the working classes could seize power and create a workers' paradise.

All that was wrong when Marx first wrote it. To still believe it now is a a little crazy. But intellectuals just can't seem to let go of it. No, I don't think that Obama or Elizabeth Warren were consciously thinking Marxist theory when they spun this nonsense. The problem is that in the three decades since the total collapse of communism, intellectuals still can't get the opiate out of their bloodstream. It's the only idea they have and they can't come up with anything to replace it.

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