In an episode of Seinfeld titled “The Revenge,” George Costanza tells off his boss and quits his job. Later that day, he sits in Jerry’s apartment lamenting over what he is going to do now. Jerry asks George what his interests are? “I like sports,” George says. “Perhaps I could be a general manager.”
George goes down the list of his dream jobs. The scene is humorous because George is seemingly unaware that he is not qualified for any of these jobs; he doesn’t understand that one doesn’t get to start at the top of any profession. Finally, George says, “I like history; perhaps I could be a professor.” Elaine points out the obvious—George doesn’t have the degrees necessary. To which George replies, “It’s all politics.”
George believes the game is stacked against him. What could be holding him back from being a sports announcer or a college professor? In his thinking, it is not his absence of initiative. It is not absence of experience or degrees. It is not the fact that he tries to consistently shirk responsibility. It is not any of this. It is simply that life is unfair to George and that “politics” is holding him back.
This episode of Seinfeld was first broadcasted in 1992. By then the idea that success in life was not due to hard work but was due to politics was beginning to be grooved into our culture. The scene would not have been funny if we didn’t harbor, or if we didn’t know characters who harbor, ideas like those of George.
Last week President Obama delivered his now famous “you didn’t build it” line. Lost in the outrage was its simultaneously widespread appeal. In context, here is the relevant section of President Obama’s speech earlier this month in Virginia:
There are a lot of wealthy, successful Americans who agree with me—because they want to give something back. They know they didn’t—look, if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own. You didn’t get there on your own. I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart. There are a lot of smart people out there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else. Let me tell you something—there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there.
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. The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.
No doubt it is true that, as President Obama claimed in his speech, we are all dependent upon the efforts of others. Indeed, almost all of us would perish without the trappings of modern civilization to support us.
And true indeed, there is sometimes little correlation between hard work and success as measured by the world. Yet, most people I know get up each morning and “chop their wood” without resentment.
So who is President Obama appealing to? The George Costanza character on Seinfeld is a deluded, lazy man who feels a sense of entitlement. George Costanza might have said, “The general manager of the Yankees is not any smarter than I am. I work as hard as he does. Why don’t I get a turn at being general manager?”
Almost half of Americans pay no income tax. It would not surprise me if they also believed that, like George, life has treated them unfairly. Appealing to the George Costanza vote is good politics.
As Friedrich Hayek pointed out in The Road to Serfdom, politicians depend on getting agreement on what is often a negative platform:
It seems to be an almost a law of human nature that is easier for people to agree on a negative program—on the hatred an enemy, on the envy of those better off—than on any positive task. The contrast between the “we” and the “they,” the common fight against those outside the group, seems to be an essential ingredient in any creed which will solidly knit together a group for common action. It is consequently always employed by those who seek, not merely support of a policy, but the unreserved allegiance of huge masses.
Thus, Hayek also observes that to gain uniformity of opinion “we have to descend to the regions of lower moral and intellectual standards where the more primitive instincts prevail.”
So, make no mistake about it, President Obama with his ongoing attacks on the wealthy is appealing to the primitive instincts in us. He message is clear: We are suffering because life is unfair; the rich have too much and haven’t given back enough.
Beware: As economic skies darken, the genteel voice of President Obama will give way to those who will make a more forceful appeal to the George Costanza vote—to those who believe in the inherent unfairness of life. No doubt, one of President Obama’s lasting legacies will be that he helped to till the ground for future demagogues. George Costanza was funny; but when a candidate becomes president because he represents the George Costanzas of the world, it will not be funny.