A few weeks ago, I wrote about a fine point made by Thomas Sowell regarding Obama’s “You didn’t build that” comment and, in general, the idea the we always owe something to “society” or “government” because government provides a plethora of infrastructure.
Did the taxpayers, including business taxpayers, not pay for that road when it was built? Why should they have to pay for it twice?
Don Boudreaux adds to Sowell’s fine point in his column this week in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (bold mine).
Sure, Wal-Mart uses government-built highways to speed its inventories to its stores. But the fact that Wal-Mart would be unable to operate without the highway system doesn’t make those highways a uniquely special input to which Wal-Mart owes all, or even much, of its success.
Wal-Mart would be equally unable to operate without farmers to grow food to feed its truck drivers — or without textile producers to supply clothes for those drivers — or without oil companies to fuel its fleet of trucks.
Would Obama therefore conclude that Wal-Mart owes some special, open-ended obligation to oil companies? Would he insist that, if oil companies now squander their revenues, Wal-Mart and other retailers are morally compelled to chip in to help oil companies get back into the black?
Does Wal-Mart owe a special, open-ended obligation to oil companies?
If an oil company exec gave a speech suggesting that the oil his company provides is so valuable that they should be able to come along after someone has bought and used oil to make a profit and charge them again, that exec would be laughed off stage. Most people have a sense that oil has a price and once price has been paid, there’s no further obligation to the oil company.
So, why wasn’t Obama laughed off stage? Why have I only heard two economists point out that the folks using the services provided by government have already paid for the use of those services?
Boudreaux goes on to make another fine point, often overlooked or treated with much skepticism by folks who don’t give this a lot of thought:
Among the kinds of infrastructure that have, in fact, been supplied successfully by private businesses are city streets, highways, sewage systems, formal education, policing, money and commercial law. Government provision of such infrastructure, therefore, cannot be read as evidence that government’s role on this front is necessary.
If government failed to build highways to connect, say, Atlanta to Pittsburgh, private firms almost certainly would. (It’s easy to collect tolls from drivers who use highways.) And likewise for nearly any other pair of cities in America. So in what way is any actual, government-built highway necessary for any private entrepreneur’s economic success? None — if (as is likely) private enterprise would have done what government instead did by crowding out private efforts.