Why do we care so much about President Obama's "You didn't build it" line?
Because, as today's WSJ concisely explains, it represents a rare moment of ideological candor. Perhaps more than anything the President has said since he expressed a desire to "spread the wealth around," this statement admonishing the successful to remember those who helped them along the way reveals deep and important beliefs.
Let's start with the obvious: Life presents us with opportunities and constraints. We then choose how to respond to the opportunities presented within existing constraints.
In systems theoretic terms, top-down forces define an environment, while bottom-up forces navigate that environment. It is trivial to note that ultimate performance is a function of both. The question is which set of forces we choose to emphasize.
Most traditional systems emphasize the top-down forces. God, nature, the king, the economy, science, fate, and the dynamic of history are all top-down forces. At a lower level, we mimic these forces with complex plans in traditional approaches to architecture, urban planning, manufacturing, or distribution. In all such approaches, decisions emanate from the top, typically through a stratum of priests, managers, or intellectuals. Those lower in the hierarchy are expected to think less and obey more. The "system" typically rewards compliance by caring for those who obey--though if history is any guide, the quality of that care is rarely very high. The "system" also punishes those who try to think out of turn, viewing them (often accurately) as threats to the integrity of the system.
Bottom-up thinking is radical. It involves living without complex plans, and without the assurance that some higher force somewhere will care for you. It includes trials and errors, grand successes and spectacular failure. Though many see it as "unnatural" when applied to society, it is in fact the basis of nature--manifested most clearly in evolution. Bottom-up thinking is the basis of individual dignity and freedom. Market economics, representative governance, freedom of conscience, and sexual liberation are only possible in bottom-up environments. In all other settings, individual expression threatens to undermine the social system.
For those of us attuned to such things, President Obama's preference for top-down structural planning over bottom-up trial-and-error has long been clear. Speeches like the one at issue help clarify this preference to a much broader public.