There’s a line of argument that has really begun to irritate me, and Obama is only the most recent politician to promulgate it:
“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…
“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 point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together. There are some things, just like fighting fires, we don’t do on our own. I mean, imagine if everybody had their own fire service. That would be a hard way to organize fighting fires.”
(Read more here.)
Allow me to call out the two ridiculous assumptions that lurk behind this rhetoric:
First of all, as I noted in Friday’s post, this is a reply to an argument no one has made. Everyone understands that a community can accomplish many things that a lone individual cannot. After all, why have people created publicly-traded corporations if not to access the resources of thousands of investors? Why do people band together in service organizations if not to maximize the impact of their generosity? Alexis de Tocqueville once observed in his famous description of the early American republic that:
“Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form associations. They have not only commercial and manufacturing companies, in which all take part, but associations of a thousand other kinds, religious, moral, serious, futile, general or restricted, enormous or diminutive. The Americans make associations to give entertainments, to found seminaries, to build inns, to construct churches, to diffuse books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they found hospitals, prisons, and schools. If it is proposed to inculcate some truth or to foster some feeling by the encouragement of a great example, they form a society. Wherever at the head of some new undertaking you see the government in France, or a man of rank in England, in the United States you will be sure to find an association.
“I met with several kinds of associations in America of which I confess I had no previous notion; and I have often admired the extreme skill with which the inhabitants of the United States succeed in proposing a common object for the exertions of a great many men and in inducing them voluntarily to pursue it.”
And does the conservative movement discourage this activity — this spontaneous formation of associations for the purpose of accomplishing some larger public goal? Of course not. Indeed, de Tocqueville is fairly well revered on our side of the aisle.
No – the real difference between Obama’s ideology and ours is this: Obama emphasizes the role of the government – and only the government – in providing for the common good. We conservatives, on the other hand, believe the government should be our last resort — that the voluntary associations that were one of America’s key features in de Tocqueville’s time can often achieve superior results depending on the problem at issue. The conservative creed does not suppose an atomized society in which each individual must go it alone. Indeed, even your most radical libertarians understand the theoretical importance of a police force at the very least (even when they criticize its alleged excesses). And as for those of us on the socially conservative end of the spectrum, I recommend you read It Takes a Family, in which Rick Santorum spends almost 500 pages emphasizing the importance of rebuilding our civic capital. Santorum may be a little too reliant on government solutions for the average conservative’s taste, but I think we generally agree with the former senator’s larger point — that broken families and broken neighborhoods are what make big government so attractive to so many and that the government does have at least a minimal role in ensuring that our aforementioned voluntary associations can survive and thrive.
To put it simply: Do we conservatives acknowledge that some taxation is necessary if we are to have things like fire houses and policemen and an Air Force? Yes. But we also believe in the principle of subsidiarity — i.e., the idea that any problem must be tackled by the smallest group that is competent to do so. Military research is certainly the province of the federal government; bullying in the schoolyard, however, should be handled by the local principal and not by federal or state mandates. And as for all the issues that lie between? Well, unlike the left, we believe there is room for legitimate debate — that we should be allowed to examine the effectiveness of every government program without being vilified as puppy-kickers who wish to starve Grandma.
Now to the second ludicrous assumption: When Obama and his supporters proclaim, repeatedly, that the rich must “give back” and “pay their fair share,” they are implying that the rich don’t do so already — a viewpoint that is so overwhelmingly false that it makes me laugh. Let’s destroy this pernicious claim, shall we?
- Since the age of the so-called “robber barons,” the rich have poured millions of dollars into various philanthropic causes. Name any art museum, theater, hospital, university, research facility, or homeless shelter, and I guarantee I can produce a list of very rich people who helped to make it happen without being forced to do so by the dead hand of the federal government.
- According to the CBO, the hated “one-percent” earned 13.4% of the total income generated in the US in 2009 and paid 22.3% of all the federal income taxes collected. What’s unfair about this exactly? It seems pretty proportional to me.
- More importantly, if a man has a lucrative business, he doesn’t dump all the money said business earns into a private pool to swim in it all day. Obviously, he pays taxes (see the second point above), but his prosperity travels even further than that. Number one, he pays his employees (thereby acknowledging their contribution to his success) and buys new materials and equipment (thereby funneling capital to other economic ventures). Number two, this business owner may use his take-home profits to buy a house (thereby giving money to a cadre of realtors, architects and construction workers), shop for groceries (thereby giving money to point-of-sale clerks and farmers), or hire a tutor for his children (thereby giving money to people like me). The upshot? This man may make a million dollars before taxes, but most of that money will not stay in his pocket. It will be spread throughout his community.
- Lastly, the aforementioned business owner cannot compel anyone to pay for his product or his services. Consequently, if he is making money hand over fist, we can rely on that as a signal that he is adding value to many people’s lives just by making a living. Let’s say I spend several hundred dollars on a new laptop. The lucky computer company may get my money, but guess what? I get a laptop in return — and my life is incontrovertibly enriched. Give back? No — I’m not going to demand that the CEO of Dell “give back” because, in making relatively affordable laptops available to people like me, he or she already has. Similarly, I’m not going to insist self-righteously that the CEO of Walmart pay his “fair share” because providing the rural and urban poor the opportunity to buy groceries and other consumer goods on the cheap is a contribution to society that is quite sufficient.
Do I think it’s nice when wealthy people go above and beyond what is legally required when it comes to their giving? Yes. Do I hope that most wealthy people will be inspired to do so by the call of Christian charity? Of course. But Obama is not appealing to the teachings of Jesus Christ — or, at the very least, he is doing so inaccurately. What Obama and his ilk are proposing is that we take by force the fruits of other men’s success — and they are attempting to justify their outright denial of the rich man’s natural rights by misusing the concept of a social contract. It is vacuously true that no man can achieve success wholly on his own — but if the reality that we all have teachers to teach us, policemen and firemen to protect us, and highways on which to transport our goods is reason enough for “society” to confiscate a man’s wealth, no one’s property is safe.