“You can and did build it.”
This blog will define and defend the idea that man can choose and achieve goals, and that when he does he deserves the credit, in justice, for “building that.” The title of this blog stems from a debate started by President Barack Obama in his 2012 speech in Roanoke, Virginia, in which he stated that
“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.”
This and other quotes from Obama sympathizers – particularly Elizabeth Warren, who a year earlier had said: “There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own — nobody,” ignited a firestorm of debate about whether it was true that the individual achieved success on his own and therefore deserves to keep the fruits of his effort – his salary, his business, etc.
The debate, however, focused on the second half of this blog’s title, the idea that man did build that. There were excellent responses to these attacks on men’s right to pride in their own achievements, the most cogent of which appeared in a Forbes article titled “President Obama vs. My Grandfather.” Under the covers, however, was a premise shared by not only the Left, but also those who opposed the “you didn’t build that” chorus: the premise that man really can’t achieve goals on his own. The entire apparatus of the welfare state is predicated on the idea that the individual can’t make it on his own but must be given a hand up by government or society. Even those who oppose the welfare state often call on everyone to help the disadvantaged as a duty – this sentiment is echoed by almost every church parson as well as by almost every American. The Conservative response to “You didn’t build that” was that America is great because we all have a sense of “community” that helps us survive because on our own we couldn’t. The modern declaration that people really can’t do things on their own has grown enormously decade by decade. The disadvantaged went from a very small minority of those so incapable of surviving that they needed a “safety net” (Ronald Reagan’s oft-used phrase) to a larger and larger group of people incapable of surviving because of reasons like: 1) they are not given a living wage, 2) they are burdened by student loans, 3) prices of drugs are rising, 4) jobs are disappearing overseas.
This blog’s entire purpose is to fully reject the idea that man cannot succeed, and, put positively, to prove, defend and promote the idea that he can choose his direction, make his own life and succeed on his own. Fundamentally, it will defend the idea that man has free will, or volition. This is a broad philosophical abstraction, and as such needs to be defined, put in context and concretized, which this blog will do over the course of many articles – supported by philosophical argument, as well as historical references and concrete news stories.
To begin, let us be clear about what is meant by “man has free will.” Many arguments against free will stem from a mistaken idea of what it means, and what is included in it. A formal definition of free will:
“A course of thought or action is ‘free,’ if it is selected from two or more courses possible under the circumstances. In such a case, the difference is made by the individual’s decision, which did not have to be what it is, i.e., which could have been otherwise.” (Objectivism, The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (OPAR), by Leonard Peikoff, p. 55. The section of OPAR in which this definition appears, and the two sections following it, are a complete philosophic description, and defense, of free will. The author of this blog is indebted to Dr. Peikoff for his work in this area and recommends any interested reader follow up by reading these passages of OPAR.)
More specifically, here is what free will does and does not mean:
It means man can choose (and here, as everywhere in this blog, “man” refers to men and women, all human beings):
- whether and how he will think and use his mind,
- what ideas he will accept
- what goals and values he will pursue
- how he acts
What free will does not mean is choosing to:
- violate the laws of nature
- attain immediate success in any complex endeavor
- achieve any irrational or impossible goal (such as a person of modest intelligence winning a Nobel Prize in the next ten years, or a quadriplegic signing an NFL quarterback position).
- literally will an emotion to disappear (attempting to do that is what psychologists call “repression”)
From the simplest concrete act of choosing, such as what to cook for the next meal, to the far more complex acts of choosing a lifetime career or a romantic partner, almost everyone grasps that “possible” is the most important qualifier in the definition of free will. What is literally impossible cannot be the subject of an act of choice, even if a person wishes fervently for it to be so. Hence, the entire list of what is not included in free will consists of things that are impossible – violating the laws of nature chief among them.
There will be occasion to discuss in this blog why so many people feel as though they don’t have free will, even though in fact they do. But one very important reason, it will be seen, is that they have an improper understanding of what is included in free will: They try to achieve the impossible, and failing to do so, they “feel” as though their will is not free: they feel they are victims of circumstance.
The next installment of this blog will present the top five arguments people give for rejecting free will – and an answer will be provided for each.