You didn’t build that…

July 25, 2012    By: Jacob J @ 9:05 pm   Category: Theology

One of Neal A. Maxwell’s most memorable themes was that we have nothing but our wills to give God that was not already his. As he put it, “The many other things we ‘give’ are actually the things He has already given or loaned to us” (Neal A. Maxwell, If Thou Endure It Well, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1996, pg. 55.). He expounded on this theme frequently and his reasoning seemed to hinge on the idea that whatever thing we think is ours is really God’s because he enabled us to obtain it in one way or other. We could not have it without air to breath, or earth to live on, etc. etc.

Over the last couple of weeks there has been a political controversy raging over a statement by President Obama of which the money quote is something along the lines of “If you have a business, you didn’t build that, somebody else made that happen.” For my purposes here, I don’t much care about the resulting political controversy. Republicans used the quote out of context to say Obama doesn’t think business owners built their businesses, democrats pointed out he was only referring to roads and bridges that the businesses didn’t build, republicans fired back noting that busnesses do, in fact, pay for the roads and bridges through property/state/local taxes. Yawn.

The interesting thing about this to me was my realization that President Obama’s actual argument is grounded in the same logic as Neal A. Maxwell’s oft repeated point about God owning everything. If I tell someone at church that God didn’t really give me everything because some of the my things I made through my own effort and ingenuity, they are likely to respond by telling me that I wouldn’t have had the energy to do anything without food that God provided. If I grew my own food, then God gave me soil and water, etc. If I tell Pres Obama that I made my business successful through personal risk and hard work, he is likely to point out that I couldn’t have done these things without public roads and public police. The logic that underlies both positions is that you don’t really own your things if you relied on someone else in some aspect to enable the circumstances in which you built the things you have.

It feels like just yesterday I was posting on this topic, but I was shocked to learn that it was back in 2007 that I took issue with the concept of ownership undergirding Elder Maxwell’s argument. I don’t think God deserves all the credit for the good things I do anymore than he deserves all the credit for the bad things I do. The air I breath was required for both the good and the bad things, just as there are roads in front of both thriving and failing businesses.

I won’t rehash all my points from that older post, go back and read it if you are interested. But, if you are one of those people who disagrees with Pres. Obama and agrees with Elder Maxwell, use this opportunity to get a new perspective on the (wrong-headed) premise that lies at the heart of both of their points.


  1. I like to think of these things not in terms of ownership, but in terms of dependence. For example, take the average billionaire. If everyone boycotted him and shunned him, i.e. refused to sell him anything or perform any services for him, he would probably die or at least suffer, i.e. I think he would be bad at growing his own food and living alone. However he got his money and however different people associate different amounts of merit with his financial situation, none of this removes his almost utter dependence on other people. When people live in isolated families and small clans, this dependence is clearer and relative economic equality emerges. In large societies, this feedback mechanism is greatly weakened because there are lots of people who can be motivated not to provide the social pressure that results in relative equality.

    Comment by Paul 2 — July 26, 2012 @ 3:19 am

  2. It seems to me that Elder Maxwell’s point about the will entails a partial retraction of what he says about everything else. Because a lot of ‘everything else’ is due to the operation of human will. I acquire goods or family in part because I willed to use my talents in that direction. My talents expanded because I willed to expand them. Etc. But I wouldn’t make too much of this because President Maxwell isn’t making a legal argument for ownership claims vis-a-vis God. He’s preaching humility and exhorting a renewed focus on submitting our will to God.

    The President, on the other hand, is laying the groundwork for increased regulation and taxation and trying to disqualify opposition to them as hypocritical. So while the arguments are formally similar, their social context is much different.

    Finally, while government is a but-for cause of business and other individual and societal functioning, business, individuals, and society are also a but-for cause of government. We are not, however, the cause of God. So the President’s argument is invalid in a way that Elder Maxwell’s isn’t.

    Lastly, having read the context and seen the speech, I can’t agree that Republicans took the quote out of context. The President may have misspoke, but what he said is what he said.

    Comment by Adam G. — July 26, 2012 @ 8:54 am

  3. JacobJ:

    Nice to see you post again. It does seem like only yesterday…

    I like your point about the breath being require for good and evil. And roads being in front of both successful and failed business. Well done.

    Comment by Eric Nielson — July 26, 2012 @ 4:03 pm

  4. Paul 2,

    There is a great interdependence, to be sure, but no one genuinely disputes that. Do billionaires owe their amassed wealth, or credit for their amassed wealth to the masses? Does God deserve the credit for all the things I do because I am dependent on him? That is the issue at hand.

    Adam G,

    My own reading of Elder Maxwell is that he is doing more than just preaching humility and submission to God. Regardless of what Elder Maxwell had in mind, this idea has become widespread in the church. For one simple example, every year we go into tithing settlement and the bishop counts out ten m&ms for each of our kids and asks for one back, explaining that what we donate in tithing was already given to us by God and all he asks is for ten percent back. This concept permeates our rhetoric.


    Thanks, good to hear from you too.

    Comment by Jacob J — July 29, 2012 @ 6:38 pm

  5. I remember a story out of Michigan years ago about a guy who had built a multi-million dollar paving business. In his old age, he gave a significant portion of his fortune away — to his former employees. He said they had helped him be successful, had helped him amass his wealth, and it was only right that he give something back. He didn’t give all of his money away, not even half, as I recall, but the beauty of the story, to me, is that he didn’t have to give these people one dime. He’d paid them fairly for what they did, but through this gesture he acknowledged how much of his success was due to the loyal and hardworking people who worked for him. That gesture spoke volumes.

    Comment by Aaron — August 1, 2012 @ 5:38 am

  6. No, actually the logic is nowhere near the same. How you equate God with Govt is beyond me. If Obama said all the credit for a successful businessman belongs to God, there would be not much anyone would say to that. However, if he said that and then proposed higher taxes, we’d be wonderingly rightly if the credit belongs to Godmthe proceeds shouldn’t also be given to his church.

    Obama was laying the philosophical foundation that says society owns and is responsible for the means of production. I’m not going all, Socialist! on him but his argument is part way there philosophically. Otherwise why point it out? Yes, hopefully we all realize everyone receives some benefit from roads and schools. But even when you take people who have equal access to these things, some are far more successfulmthan others and it’s not just luck that accounts for it.

    Comment by K — September 2, 2012 @ 2:33 pm

  7. I basically agree with you, Jacob. The fact is, that I did “build that”. However, it is also true that I am completely dependent upon others (and God) for being placed in a position to do that. I alone have responsibility (and credit) for using my initiative and abilities to create whatever it is I’m creating. But it’s also important to acknowledge that I wouldn’t have been able to create it without God or society.
    In other words, dependence does not equal a lack of responsibility. Society/God merely provided me with an opportunity. But I bear the responsibility for what I do with that opportunity.

    Comment by themormonbrit — September 18, 2012 @ 4:51 am