May 17, 2009

Give Back. Give Back What?

Michelle Obama tells students to “give back”

Yesterday Michelle Obama giving a commencement speech at the University of California, Merced’s graduation ceremony. Of course, there were the obligatory brief self-bio that every commencement speech-writer inserts about his or her own life, and Michelle Obama was no different. She talked about where she came from, and what she has achieved. And she encouraged those who will become successful in their careers to “give back” to society. This coming from the family who gave less than 5% of their income over the past ten years to charitable giving, but who has no problem raising taxes on the wealthy in the name of “public good.”

Michelle Obama is an idiot. I’m sorry, I’m being mean. She’s not really an idiot, she’s probably just ignorant, can’t make basic observations about U.S. society and culture, or ignores what is strikingly obvious in most instances because her bias against the wealthy and successful blinds her to what actually goes on in an economy.

Her first assumption is that when somebody becomes successful in America, it is at somebody else’s “expense.” Unfortunately, Michelle, we live in a society primarily based upon freedom of choice (something I believe she touts with regards to some topics such as abortion, but not others). That means that if somebody wants to be successful by acquiring other people’s money (legally), they must offer something in return (it’s why you say “thank you” to the owner of the coffee shop as he says the same back to you when you buy a cup of coffee). If I want what you have (sounds kinda greedy, doesn’t it?), I have to provide you something in return (perhaps the best way to handle the notion of greed in society). If you don’t like what I want to provide you, I can’t have your money. In general, this is how things work legally. It’s how our legal structure is setup.

So when these successful businesspersons provide great things for society such as home construction, cabinet manufacturing, automobiles, quilts, or even family counseling, they are engaging in trade—both parties inherently become wealthier. If that were not true, the trade wouldn’t take place (why would I trade something that I believe would make me “poorer”?). The only instance this doesn’t take place is through coercive methods; anytime one is coerced to do something he wouldn’t do voluntarily, there is not a “mutual gain.”

Michelle Obama believes that “giving back” is not voluntary generous giving (though she may accept this). What Michelle is doing is subtle: get young minds to believe that (1) what they are doing is not in and of itself a service to society, therefore (2) “giving back” means later being okay with some of your markers of success (i.e., money) to be taken from you in the name of “public service” (with or without the voluntary giving piece). If I were trying to get society to be okay with coercive generosity, I’d say this is a great way to redefine taxation into some quasi-voluntary activity.

The Obamas may believe that private charity can have positive impacts upon society. They may also believe in businesspersons who are generous and do not take advantage of “the little guy,” and therefore provide something good for society. So along those lines, Michelle’s admonitions are acceptable. But knowing where she comes from, her advice is at best laughable and at worst hypocritical. But they act as if they believe that the government is the source of all (at least most) good in society, and that top-down planning of an economy and society is the best way to achieve nirvana in this life.

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