Paying It Forward? Really?
There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own — nobody. You built a factory out there? Good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police-forces and fire-forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory — and hire someone to protect against this — because of the work the rest of us did. Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific, or a great idea. God bless — keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is, you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along. — Elizabeth Warren, candidate for U.S. Senate, Massachusetts (see source here)
Here I go getting political again, sort of. The quote above has been shared and linked to on Facebook numerous times over the past several days as “one of the most important quotes ever” and “a quote all Americans should read.” It is being shared mostly by people from the political left, who believe it’s important, I think, because it’s a succinct summary of their belief that we should all be willing to “do our part,” particularly if we’re rich.
But what does “do our part” really mean? Most people, liberals and conservatives alike, believe that Ms. Warren means “pay your fair share of taxes.” Since I don’t know anything about her, and since I generally try to ignore bipartisan squabbling for the pointless waste of time that it is, I have no way of knowing for sure. Even so, I have a few thoughts about it.
First of all, the quote clearly comes from a person with a systems-thinker mentality. That is, from someone who sees the world primarily as a system, a community in which nobody is an island and we are all dependent on each other to survive and thrive. From this viewpoint, it is certainly correct to say that “nobody got rich on his own.” People get rich (at least in a market economy) by providing goods or services that other people are willing to pay for. And yes, they need employees, and infrastructure, and a stable government and economy in order to bring their goods and services to market. And yes, the employees, infrastructure, government, economy, and customers are all part of a system that makes it possible for people with good ideas to create wealth, for themselves, for their employees, and for the economy at large. There is no doubt that nobody gets rich without a large community to create and support such wealth.
There is nothing wrong with a systemic view of the world. It’s certainly a more developed point of view than “me first” or even “me and my people first.” People who see the world as one big organism of which we are all a part, whether that organism be political, economical, cultural, environmental, spiritual, or something else, tend to be peace-loving, tolerant, earnest souls who are idealistically committed to making the world a better place. Carl Sagan’s quote that “before you can make an apple pie, you must first invent the Universe” is a good example of systems thinking. So is John Muir’s quote that “When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.” Sagan is talking about the mind-boggling chain of causality which brings us all to the present moment (and which, if one is properly pondering it, should create a sense of awe at the wondrous nature of consciousness). Muir is talking about understanding that all of our actions have consequences, in an effort to promote conscientious stewardship of the planet. Both are eloquent, sophisticated examples of systems thinking.
In American politics, however, you will find the vast majority of system-thinkers to be, in general, very un-sophisticated. Most politicians, rightists and leftists alike, believe in social obligation, in people giving back to their community. (In fact, this is usually the reason people get into politics in the first place, or at least their stated reason.) They may differ on priorities and agendas, but both sides believe (with a few notable exceptions, e.g. Ron Paul) that the correct method to achieve this is through taxation.
Nothing could be more wrong, or antithetical to its stated cause, than confusing taxation with “giving back,” “paying it forward,” or creating a sense of community. Despite decades of political rhetoric meant to convince us otherwise, this is not how a person’s sense of “social contract” comes about. Such thinking is not only unsophisticated, it’s flat-out wrong.
If Ms. Warren is talking, in this quote, about a voluntary social contract, in which those more fortunate help those less fortunate because they know it is the right thing to do, then it is a belief I happen to agree with and wholeheartedly endorse. Wealth creates jobs and opportunities and prosperity, not to mention whatever goods and services that have added value to people’s lives. In this way, people who create wealth give back to their community far more than people in less fortunate positions could ever do. As if this weren’t enough, most wealthy people also set up foundations. They give away scholarships. They create opportunities for those less fortunate. And they have been doing so for centuries, on a completely voluntary basis. In this sense, many wealthy people seem to have a rather highly developed sense of gratitude for their position, and a clear understanding of its relationship to their community.
But I don’t think this is what Ms. Warren is talking about. I think that most people’s interpretation–that she is talking about taxation–is correct. Her statements (and choice of wording) about the roads and the police and public education support this, as these are all entities sustained by taxation. If this is the case, then it makes her just another bipartisan, one-dimensional politician who is using emotional rhetoric to obfuscate rather than clarify the issues she’s addressing, and not much of a systems thinker at all. For example, she conveniently ignores the truth that the factory owner also pays for the roads, and the police, and the public education, that he in fact pays much more than his employees because he has a higher income. And she ignores the truth that most wealthy people do “pay it forward,” voluntarily and in numerous ways, some of which I’ve mentioned above. She also ignores the fact that the person who came up with the idea or invention did do so on his own, despite the causal chain that led up to the spark of genius, and despite the infrastructure required to bring that spark to fruition; the person’s community certainly had a part in his idea, but envy and a sense of entitlement can make other people think their roles were greater than they actually were. She also neglects to mention that taxes pay for countless questionable and even blatantly immoral government projects such as covert and preventative wars, unnecessary military buildup, espionage, illegal surveillance, pork barrel spending, corporate protectionism, private investing, campaign funding, and much more, all of which should be vigorously investigated before any talk of increased taxes (and I cannot emphasize too much my outrage on this particular point).
Most significantly, though, Ms. Warren ignores the unavoidable fact, the pink elephant in the room that so many politicians seem to be conveniently oblivious to, about paying taxes, which is that taxation is coercive–there are legal consequences if you don’t do it. Which means that a person’s sense of social responsibility, which is the exact point she’s trying to make, cannot be achieved through such means.
Like any other positive in life–love, respect, kindness, or tolerance, for example–social responsibility can only come about by a person’s desire for it. If you possess more power than other people do (like the government), you can force others to behave in a certain way, but you can’t change how they feel. You can’t force anyone to love you or respect you; these are things that must be earned. Social responsibility is like that, too. Paying taxes forces us to be “responsible,” but in the same way that children are responsible for doing homework or brushing their teeth: because their parents make them, not because they understand the greater significance of the action. When “responsibility” is coercive, it is beyond the province of choice; thus it is beyond the province of morality. Thus, it has nothing to do with “giving back” or “paying it forward” because that is the right thing to do. It is merely the legal thing to do.
As such, it provides no opportunity whatsoever to feel good about our community membership. People who talk about paying taxes as though it were a noble thing do not understand that helping other people doesn’t count if it isn’t voluntary. Coercion severs such a connection between people, renders it impotent, and it creates less understanding of the significance of community rather than more. This is the true tragedy of thinking like Ms. Warren’s: her seemingly passionate caring about community-building is completely undermined by her methods. Coercion cannot create community; it can only create greed, on the one hand, and resentment, on the other.
Furthermore, people who think it is right and morally correct to coerce people into “doing their fair share” by paying taxes are really saying that the collective trumps the individual, that the individual is less important than the community, and that this justifies the government’s demands for ever greater portions of people’s wealth (because that’s really all such a mentality, at its roots, can say). But the collective is nothing but a whole bunch of individuals; without individuals, there would be no collective. And any systems thinker who fails to recognize the sanctity and rights of all individuals within a system is at a very rudimentary level of systems thinking. Most politicians fall into this category. Not only do they believe there is a moral justification for spending other people’s money, they also believe that they, personally, have the capacity to determine such justification. Whether most of them actually believe this, or whether they simply claim to in order to increase their own status, clout, and wealth is, indeed, the great political question of our time.
Yes, we need to pay taxes. We need to support government infrastructure. And the more wealth a person has, the more taxes I suppose he should pay (within reason). But to see taxation as a noble cause is to miss the point completely, and seems to me just another excuse to steal wealth from those who create it, expanding the scope and power of government and its seedy, subtle, immoral infiltration into our lives.