What you "Owe to Society"
Tibor R. Machan
Sadly this is an ancient thesis that's being revived now in a country that was founded on denying it. The idea is well expressed in a recent book by Professor William E. Hudson, titled, The Libertarian Illusion: Ideology, Public Policy, and the Assault on the Common Good (Washington, DC: CQ Press, 2008). Hudson states, on page 43, that “The ability that any of us have to earn income and acquire wealth depends only partly on our own individual efforts. It relies as well on the operation of political, economic, and social institutions that make it possible for any of us to ‘earn a living.’ . . .Viewed in this light, those deductions from my paycheck can be seen as reimbursements to society for that portion of my earnings derived from social goods.” The very same idea has been championed for years by one of President Obama's favorite intellectuals, Cass Sunstein, for example in the book the latter co-authored with Stephen Holmes, The Cost of Rights: Why Liberty Depends on Taxes (W. W. Norton & Co., 1999).
Reimbursements to society! What a lie that is, given that society is nothing more than all of us together as individuals and that what we own, so long as we stole it from no one, ought to be left to each of us to allocate as he or she judges proper, not to the likes of the sneaky professor and his gang in centers of political power.
A long time ago it was the French father of sociology and avid champion of a huge system of socialism, Auguste Comte (1798-1857), who maintained that very same thesis. As he put it, in his book The Catechism of Positive Religion (Clifton, NJ: Augustus M. Kelley Publ., 1973),
"Everything we have belongs then to Humanity…[my system] never admits anything but duties, of all to all. For its social point of view cannot tolerate the notion of right, constantly based on individualism. We are born loaded with obligations of every kind, to our predecessors, to our successors, to our contemporaries. Later they only grow or accumulate before we can return any service. On what human foundation then could rest the idea of right, which in reason should imply some previous efficiency? Whatever may be our efforts, the longest life well employed will never enable us to pay back but an imperceptible part of what we have received. And yet it would only be after a complete return that we should be justly authorized to require reciprocity for the new services. All human rights then are as absurd as they are immoral. This ["to live for others"], the definitive formula of human morality, gives a direct sanction exclusively to our instincts of benevolence, the common source of happiness and duty. [Man must serve] Humanity, whose we are entirely" (212-30).
Both Comte and his contemporary followers--who, by the way keep calling themselves progressives even though what they advocate is about as reactionary as it could get--maintain the fallacy that because people made major contributions with their works to our lives--the scientists, artists, farmers, inventors, and the lot--we now are obligated to give up our resources, our labor, indeed our very lives, and let a bunch of our contemporaries whom we don't know and often have never met, decide what is to be done with it all. What a ruse this is!
In fact, of course, the contributions made by all those productive, creative folks of the past were not made with the provision that members of far off future generations will be held in bondage to them somehow, in consequence. And notice, the debt is not said be to those who made those great contributions, no sir. The debt is to be paid to these contemporaries who have done little or nothing at all for you and me other than to send out tax collectors to raid our more or less substantial wealth. All because, well, we didn't earn all the value of this wealth on our but had benefited from those folks from the past. (By that argument you don't own your health, beauty, talents, nothing you didn't produce on your own!)
Exactly why any of this should entitle this current bunch to any of what you and I and the rest of us they want to rip off have come by, whether by luck or personal effort, I cannot fathom. The argument they put forth, from Comte to Hudson, just does not prove any such obligation, none at all, certainly not to those who now collect the reimbursement--i.e., perpetrate the extortion, which is what it in reality amounts to.
I greatly enjoy the works of many artists and performers who have long since died, via old movies, reproduction of their paintings, music, literature, and the rest. I mean they literally keep thrilling me, as I listen, watch and read. Quite spontaneously I often wish I could shake their hands, hug them, thank them for having done so much that gives me pleasure in my life. (I am especially fond of the works of some novelist, musicians, actors, painters with whose work I have surrounded my life for decades.)
By what perverted line of reasoning, if one can even call it that, do the likes of Comte, Sunstein and Hudson make a claim on me in the name of these wonderful folks? Who on earth entrusted them with this job?
No one, that's who. They are trying to perpetrate an out and out ruse, that's what they are about. If one falls for their deception, they will have gained power and resources they certainly did not earn and do not deserve. And it will not be luck that landed them all of what they are attempting to gain from us but trickery, sophistry, and ruthless indifference to our own right to make the effort to carve out a decent life for ourselves.
I hope they do not win, at least not for much longer.