In a recent campaign speech, President Obama doubled down on what has become a streak of denigrating business and pooh-poohing individual initiative.
The quote in question:
There are a lot of wealthy, successful Americans who agree with me because they want to give something back…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.
Although the President’s “you didn’t build that” line is the center of attention, such a response is only logical for those who believe, more fundamentally, that enduring excessive tax hikes is an ideal way to “give something back.” When from the government all blessings flow, then to the government all things must go.
On a more practical level, the notion of “giving back” through increased taxes assumes that any funds we have “given” to the government are somehow being over utilized—that we are getting too big of a bang for our buck, particularly if we go do something leechy like start a business. For Obama, it seems as though rich people and business owners in particular are getting above and beyond what they have contributed to our bloated federal bureaucracy, so how dare they push back when asked to “give back”? By this logic, our federal deficit is really a deficit of “giving back.” The federal government has not overpromised and under-delivered; we citizens have overly devoured and under-“given.”
Talking this way quickly becomes problematic, particularly because the word “give” is being used to describe something that “giving” is not (thus my excessive use of quotation marks thus far—my apologies). President Obama is not talking about business owners “giving something back” through charity, community service, social entrepreneurship, environmental sustainability, or, God forbid, value creation. He is talking about business owners submitting to his coercive political agenda, a primary plank of which happens to be making rich people pay for things they don’t want to pay for by getting non-rich majorities to throw stones at them.
Sounds like a good model for “giving something back.”
Yet I’m not one to say that we can’t give something back through government, or even that we shouldn’t. We should be thankful for the successes of government—for the positive achievements it has made toward maintaining social order and creating conditions for human flourishing. Plenty of people gave something to make these achievements possible, material or not. Indeed, as an example of purely material “giving,” Warren Buffett and Rep. Scott Rigell have participated in just that, donating freely and willingly to the IRS. If this is what Obama is advocating—voluntary contributions to the federal deficit—it would be far less problematic, though perhaps still inadvisable (show me the cuts).
So yes, we can and should give back to our communities and institutions, including government, and we should recognize that others have contributed to our successes through their own generosity and commitment (a point aptly made by Jordan Ballor).
But Obama is saying something quite different, for when this notion of “giving something back” is wielded as Obama wields it—toward his own narrow, explicitly coercive purposes—we should recognize that a deeper shift is taking place.
Politicians should be making such appeals based on moral, social or economic needs, striving to persuade the public that collective submission and coercion are necessary, because sometimes they are. Instead, by calling citizens to blindly sacrifice their resources at the altar of the Machine That Hath Blessed Thee, they are really asking people to sacrifice something deeper. By asking for submission as a means of sacrifice, rather than as a necessity for the good, the government perverts the order of things, transforming itself into a weird maternal robot that longs for emotional affairs with its unwilling human children, moving ever further from being a tool for basic governance and justice.
Obama should call this what it is, proceeding to teach us the glorious merits of bludgeoning materialistic redistribution and surgical social engineering (which, to his credit, he often does). Instead, he seems bent on resorting to a series of creepy, dysfunctional, Julia-esque guilt trips.
It’s when individuals and voluntary associations come last, not first, that we begin to replace personal sacrifice with impersonal submission. It’s when government becomes a pagan god of material fulfillment that we begin to expect it to bless our crops, right our weather, and heal our every wound. It’s when we view government as an entity from which all blessings flow that we begin to reduce the enormous risks and sacrifices of entrepreneurs to simplistic baby steps within a grander scheme of noble Big Brother back-rubbery.
When we contort the vocabulary of generosity, we should expect contorted sacrifice. When we promote a disordered view of individual obligations and responsibilities, we should expect disordered relationships. When we push our definitions of the “good” ever closer to those of the State, we should expect the good to change accordingly. And when we pretend that government is Supreme Creator, we should expect it to say things like, “You didn’t build that.”