Giving Back

How many times have we heard people being applauded for "giving back"? People seem to believe that if you've been successful and made a lot of money you're somehow obliged to give back by making donations to this or that cause, program or people. Giving back is not only a nonsensical idea but a dangerous one as well. It reflects ignorance about the sources of income and at the same time provides fuel for demagogues and charlatans.

Depending on one's vision of the sources of income, giving back not only makes good sense, but is a moral imperative as well. Suppose income was simply a huge pile of money that was meant to be distributed equally. The reason some people are rich and others are not is because greedy rich people got to the pile first and took an unfair share. Giving back would be the right thing to do.

Another vision of the sources of income might be that income is distributed. In other words, there is a dealer of dollars. In this case, the reason why some people are rich and others are not is that the dollar dealer is a racist, a sexist or a multi-nationalist. Those to whom the mean dollar dealer dealt too large a share of dollars should give back some of their ill-gotten gains. If they refuse to give back, then it's the job of government to confiscate their ill-gotten gains and return them to their rightful owners. In a word, there must be a re-dealing of the dollars, what some call income redistribution.

In a free society, income is neither taken nor distributed; it is earned. Income is earned by pleasing one's fellow man. The greater one's ability to please his fellow man, the greater is his claim on what his fellow man produces. This claim is represented by the size of his income.

Let's look at it. Say I mow your lawn. When I'm finished, you pay me $20. I go to my grocer and demand, "Give me two pounds of sirloin and a six-pack of beer that my fellow man produced." The grocer asks, "Williams, what did you do to deserve a claim on what your fellow man produced? I say, "I served him." The grocer says, "Prove it." That's when I pull out the $20 I earned. We might think of those twenty dollars as "certificates of performance", evidence of service.

Free markets along with peaceable, voluntary exchange are morally superior to other alternatives. In order to make a claim on what my fellow man produces, I must serve him. Contrast that principle to government handouts where a person is told, "You don't have to serve your fellow man. We'll take what he produces and give it to you."

Michael Jackson is rich. So is Steve Jobs and Michael Jordan. Henry Ford was rich and so was Jonas Salk - but not Williams. Why? I can sing. I can also play basketball. The problem is that my fellow man is not as pleased by my performance as he is with Michael Jackson and Michael Jordan. Henry Ford became rich by making it possible for the ordinary person to own a car and Jonas Salk helped eliminate a dreaded disease. You tell me what else do they owe anyone; they've already given.

In our society, there are people who should give back. These are the thieves and social parasites who live forcibly at the expense of others. They prey on their fellow man. Some do it privately through theft, fraud and robbery. Others use the political mechanism whereby Congress enriches them at the expense of others. If giving back means anything, it should apply to thieves and social parasites not those who became wealthy by serving us.

Walter E. Williams
March 8, 2002
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