Romney Takes ‘You Didn’t Build That’ Global

After building a whole infrastructure to attack President Obama’s “you didn’t build that” comment, it’s delightfully ironic to see the Romney campaign nudging reporters to write gently about Mitt’s remarks in Israel.

These might sound like two wholly unrelated controversies — one damaging to Obama, one damaging to Romney. But in a real sense they’re outgrowths of the same widely held conservative assumption that financial success is typically a symptom of hard work and a more general virtuosity.Here I’m not talking about the much larger, phony side of the “you didn’t build that” debacle, where Republicans are pretending Obama said entrepreneurs didn’t build their businesses. That’s run of the mill political hackery. But many conservatives were genuinely offended by the fair reading of Obama’s speech — that successful entrepreneurs should contribute more to public works, because they’ve benefited the most from them — because it clashes with their view of what’s most fundamental to individual and group success.

One conservative correspondent of mine called individual initiative the “but for” requirement for financial prosperity. We all get to enjoy roads and schools and other essential pieces of infrastructure. We all benefit from public investments. On top of that baseline, sweat and determination don’t guarantee success, but success won’t materialize without them.

That is reflective of a very deep-seated American can-do attitude, one we identified not so long ago the “Protestant work ethic.” But it has morphed from a shared recognition that hard work and initiative are inherently good, noble character traits into a sense that financial success is a proxy for them — where a high net worth is in and of itself a testament to one’s good character. See, e.g., prosperity gospel.

Many if not most American liberals disagree with this perspective, both for its misunderstanding of merit, and for its common but false correlate that poverty is a symptom of laziness or moral failure. But it’s become central to modern conservative identity. It’s why they’re so confident that the cartoon version of Obama’s remarks is so politically noxious. And yet when Romney leaves the country and applies the same basic conception to larger groups of peoples in nations — Israelis and Palestinians, Americans and Mexicans, Chileans and Peruvians — it creates a huge row, and the campaign has to step in to clean up the mess.

That’s not altogether surprising. An appeal to Americans’ sense of self-determination and an implicit attack on the values of poor countries are politically very different things. But they spring from the same view of the world, and it’s strange in a way to see Romney running away from that view in one context and charging directly at it in another.