Social Justice, Current Events

Obama’s “you didn’t build that!”: A Long Pedigree

I am somewhat surprised by the reaction to the view expressed by Barack Obama, that successful people don’t deserve (all or much of the) credit for their success. Critics acted as if these views had been uttered for the first time ever, as if Obama had introduced a new, revolutionary thought in our public discourse. On the contrary, the view has a robust tradition in political thought. It owes to Karl Marx’s dictum that all resources are socially produced.  It is likewise a centerpiece of John Rawls’s political theory, which starts from the premise that no one deserves what they’ve got, not even their natural talents. The position is, morover, shared by the great majority of contemporary political philosophers. In a well-known book, Liam Murphy and Thomas Nagel say that no one owns anything, and that therefore the state can allocate resources in accordance to justice. For these thinkers, capitalism might still be  desirable, because a wise government will consider incentives to create wealth when allocating resources. But, to them, people do not own really anything: everything belongs to society. This is (to me at least) a terrible view. But its problem is not that it is too revolutionary. The problem is that it is too common.

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Author: Fernando Teson
  • Daniel Kuehn

    Let’s be clear, though – you’re listing a lot of cases that go much farther than the simple acknowledgement of social production and positive externalities. That’s not necessarily what Obama or people who agree with Obama think.

    It’s very easy to think that Obama was exactly right on the economics of the question and still agree with you that Murphy and Nagel present a “terrible view”.

  • I suppose we should distinguish between ownership conceived of
    as a basic right and ownership (or perhaps legitimate expectations to the use
    of something which is to be protected in various ways) understood as something
    justified because of the value those property-like expectations creates.
    Consequentialists, most clearly, might well say that property rights are not
    fundamental rights but do help make the world contain more value and so a
    system involving people having expectations to enjoy property-like rights is
    morally recommended. I assume that the authors you mention who cast doubt on
    property are denying only the first of these two senses. I also wonder what the
    BHL attitude is towards property rights. Are they fundamental rights or do they
    morally make sense only because, for example, they make the world a better
    place, especially for the poor and downtrodden. I guess sometimes it seems to
    me that the more common BHL thought is the latter, more instrumental, justification
    of property. Is that right?

    • Fernando Teson

      David: this is a very difficult problem that cannot be discussed fully here. My own tentative views are:
      1) The claim that people do not deserve their talents is a category mistake. People cannot deserve or not deserve their talents, because in order to deserve or not deserve their talents they would have had to do something prior to having them, and this they couldn’t have done, since they weren’t born. So talents are neither deserved nor undeserved (see Ezequiel Spector, “Do You Deserve to Be Talented?”, Utilitas, March 2011 23 : pp 115-125)
      2) Apart from that, my instincts are mostly Lockean. I think we own, in a moral sense, our bodies and minds, plus those objects we have legitimately acquired. In addition, it is incorrect, I think, to equate what you own with what you deserve: if I gave you an undeserved gift, the fact that I gave it to you surely counts in favor of your owning it, even if you don’t deserve it. This is Nozick’s insight that it matters who goods belong to.
      3) Economic rights, such as property and contract, are important to persons for reasons similar to those that support other basic rights (along the lines argued by John Tomasi in “Free Market Fairness”). I think the exclusion of economic rights from the category of basic rights is arbitrary.
      4) In addition to all this, a system of private property rights is more apt to create wealth (and produce other beneficial consequences) than alternative systems, for all the standard economic reasons.
      5) To me, then, the value of private property rights is overdetermined. It’s supported by both deontic and consequentialist reasons.
      All of this is under-argued for, I know, but that’s all I can say here.

      • Fernando,

        Great, thanks. It is mainly claims like your 2 and 4 above
        that I was hoping to elicit. I take you to be saying that your moral view has
        it that actions are morally ok because they comply with our morally basic
        property rights, not because they make for valuable outcomes. Happily, on your
        view, complying with our basic property rights tends to have good consequences.
        Even if that is actually the case, I assume that it is possible that that is
        not so and that moral views should speak to what would be morally ok in
        possible situations. I take you to be saying that if respecting people’s rights
        did not have all the beneficial consequences you think it does, that
        nonetheless respecting the rights is what is morally required rather than doing
        what has the good consequences. If that is right, I would say that you think
        that morality happens to coincide with the promptings of bleeding hearts, but
        that the promptings of bleeding hearts (which I equate with caring about good
        consequences—but not necessarily in a straightforwardly consequentialist or
        maximizing way) is not what morality is fundamentally about. Of course none of
        this is any kind of criticism. It is just an attempt to follow what BHL think.
        I had (I now see falsely) assumed that what made one a BHL rather than some
        other kind of libertarian was that one thought that morality non-contingently
        followed the promptings of a bleeding heart.

        I would want to question the apparent inference you make
        from the claim that a person maintains that property rights are not fundamental
        rights to the attribution to such a person that everything belongs to society.
        Some views that deny the fundamentality of individual property rights also deny
        that collective property rights are fundamental. Consequentialism, for example,
        (and Rawls, I would have thought) is not best viewed as claiming that society
        owns everything in a morally fundamental way. That seems rather how someone who
        assumes that morality is fundamentally about property rights would interpret
        these rival moral doctrines. But according to such rival views, morality is not
        fundamentally about property rights whether at the individual or collective
        level. I take some of your BHL friends to deny that individual property rights
        are morally fundamental but to not be keen to embrace the thought that society
        owns everything as the key to their moral view.



  • Marcus_V

    I think a lot of people don’t spend much time reading political philosophy, and even those that do might be a little surprised to hear it coming out of the mouth of a presidential candidate seeking re-election… which is to say, out of the mouth of a sitting President of the United States.

    I agree that it is not particularly new– I’ve been under that line of attack myself personally. (That’s not as dramatic as it sounds, but when one’s friends say point blank in a BS session that you’re not responsible for your own successes, it feels dramatic at the time.)

    That said, I suspect that there is a rather thorny problem for BHL’s to deal with, here:

    On the one hand, it is fairly well-acknowledged that at least some disadvantaged are not to blame for their situations– in the extreme case, people born with crippling birth defects and mental problems. Perhaps I am wrong in this regard, but I have not noticed anyone remotely in or near the mainstream claiming that such people are responsible for their problems.

    But on the other hand, if there exist the rough opposites of these people– athletes, say, with mutations that subtly improve their performance at particular sports, or the efficacy of particular exercises– then it would seem oddly asymmetric to assign them full credit for their performance.

    I have not fully formulated my own answer to this, but it does seem like a philosophical problem.

    (My tentative direction as a not-philosopher, is that this seems like more a philosophical problem than a practical problem, as malign mutations and health problems seem both more common and more severe than benign conditions; and also that life is far more than genetics and that this is not the dystopian world of GATTACA. In combination, I think individual effort, determination, and choice in developing ones own ‘unfair’ advantages counts for far more than the ‘unfair’ advantage itself… more so than than the opposite direction for ‘unfair’ disadvantages. In short, I think the asymmetry is a very practical one. I would be interested to see how an actual BHL philosopher would approach this.)

  • Matt

    Hi Fernando. I’m in partial agreement with you. My disagreement stems mainly from the fact that the “you didn’t build that!” line looks much different when you read it in the context of Obama’s entire quote. He’s pointing to the infrastructure that supports the business, not the business itself. Right-wing pundits are spinning it as if he said “you didn’t build your business” to try to build up their anti-business case against him.
    That said, you’re right that the “you didn’t build that!” sentiment is a common one. A professor of mine in graduate school once said that if you ever think your life is built on your own merit, then take a look at your belly button. It proves that you were born, that you relied on someone to get where you are and that we’re all standing on the shoulders of giants. He’s correct to an extent, but the argument goes too far when meaningful personal achievements are poo-pooed as simple luck.

    • Fernando Teson

      Hi, Matt. I agree. I don’t much care about whether the quote was taking out of context, because even on the most benign version, his views (identical to those of Elizabeth Warren) owe to the tradition I mention.

  • Vern Imrich

    The first problem with the reasoning, is that we’re all in the same society. So unless you can show that some were denied access to the infrastructure, the benefits cancel each other out. That is, one must still explain why, out of all of us driving the same roads, only some ended up running a company, while others ended up destitute. Economics is quantitative, not qualitative. It’s not enough to say “you benefited.” To be unjust, it must be the case that “you benefited more than you have paid for.”

    The second problems is that of “ownership” is being linked to a moral concept of “deserve” to own. But ownership is best understood in terms of cause and effect. If by an action, you caused something to occur, then you “own” that result. Plant wheat, you own the grain that results. Fire a gun, then you “own” the resulting damage the bullet caused.

    This is why folks consider it “fair” in purely random or unintended outcomes, like a lottery. No one thinks a lottery winner “deserved” to win, yet we still think it’s “justice” because the winner took the cause-effect action of buying a winning ticket.

    • adrianratnapala

      The first problem with the reasoning, is that we’re all in the same society. So unless you can show that some were denied access to the infrastructure, the benefits cancel each other out.

      It’s not just the benefits of infrastructure that you must account for. Someone must pay for it.

  • Fernando is right. But why pass up a gold-plated opportunity to stick it to the redistributor-in-chief? He earned it.

  • good_in_theory

    It strikes me as an obvious error to conflate the strong philosophical version of this point with the weak popular one.

    That one is not solely responsible for what one does is a common left position. That one is not at all responsible for what one does is not, at least among garden variety left-liberals and democrats. It should not be a surprise that the more tendentious version of the claim is more commonly an object of argument among philosophers. And I question whether “no one deserving anything” is a majority philosophical opinion, let alone a ‘great majority’ one. ‘More eye catching’ is not the same as ‘more prevalent.’

    The red-baiting link to Marxism is silly. It is not “Marx’s dictum” that *all* resources are socially produced. Natural resources are not, for one: cf. Critique of the Gotha Program. Smith’s paean to the division of labor just as easily suggests wealth is pretty much entirely socially produced under the contemporary mode of production. The pin is not individually produced. That’s the virtue of markets, yes? The social production of wealth is not what is at issue; it’s the fight over concepts of desert/propriety among that which has been produced socially. “to each according to his marginal product of labor” vs. “to each according to his need.”

    • Fernando Teson

      I didn’t mean to red-bait, at all. Can’t we mention Marx without being accused of that? If anything, I was rendering tribute to Marx for the paternity of an important modern insight –one I disagree with, but an important one.

      • good_in_theory

        But Marx is not the father of the insight that *all* resources are socially produced.

        Marx himself:

        “What is “useful” labor? Surely only labor which produces the intended useful result. A savage — and man was a savage after he had ceased to be an ape — who kills an animal with a stone, who collects fruit, etc., performs “useful” labor.”

        “although isolated labor (its material conditions presupposed) can create use value, it can create neither wealth nor culture.”

        Isolated labor exists, and it creates useful labor.

        Now he is in a lineage of those who say *many* resources are socially produced, along with Smith and Rousseau and Hobbes and quite a few others, probably going back to Aristotle.

  • SimpleMachine88

    We’re a Lockean country. Riffing Marx is an odd move for a US President.

    • All I can say to that is that I did not consider Obama’s comments to be remotely Marxist. Can we stop this ludicrous labelling of anything that sound remotely collectivist as “Marxism”? It’s like diagnosing somebody as suffering from a disease when they only have one trait of the disease, none of the other traits, and are otherwise normal.

  • ThaomasH

    “On the contrary,
    the view that successful people don’t deserve [all the] credit for their success
    has a robust tradition in political thought. It owes to Karl Marx’s dictum that
    all resources are socially produced.”

    What made-for-TV
    nonsense. This “contrary view” must have originated not with Marx, but the first time
    two homo erectus hunters collaborated in felling a prey. Wasn’t it Friedman who
    pointed out that no one person knows how to make a pencil? Which businessman
    created a market economy or rule of law?

    And of course no one within two standard deviations from Obama
    begrudges successful people their success. Some do believe that people
    who earn more are in a better position to absorb a greater portion of the tax
    increases that will be needed over the long term to reduce the deficit. Romney’s trying to turn a debate over tax
    policy into “class warfare” was deeply irresponsible.

  • Dan Kervick

    As much as I would love to have a Barack Obama who was given to quasi-socialistic critiques of private property institutions and a spirited rejection of classical liberal accounts of desert and libertarian accounts of justice in contract, he seems only to have asserted something much more prosaic and obvious: that most of the things that are produced in this world owe their production – both in proximate and historical terms – to the efforts of many people.

  • Adi

    The entire argument of the above post is: “What Obama said has been said before by many political philosophers, including Marx and Rawls; and everyone outraged is unaware of this; therefore, the outrage over Obama’s gaffe is unwarranted.”

    The censure of Obama is not based on ignorance of historical figures, who might have espoused similar collectivist views, but on premise that such views are now being espoused by the most powerful man on Earth. The prospect of those views affecting public policy was what triggered the backlash. One would reasonably expect a writer of a prestigious blog like BHL to understand this, or at least keep an open mind and not try to lump every dissenter into the historic illiterates category. Apparently, some of them are more interested in propagating juvenile straw man arguments and sounding avante-garde than serious argumentation.

    • good_in_theory

      Says the completely unserious advocate of a juvenile straw man.

      Obama’s radical, completely novel, never before seen, outrageous position amounts to the conclusion that people ought to be taxed to provide for government services, because everyone benefits from them and therefore owes a debt to that which provides them. This radical doctrine is implied by such avante-garde documents as the US Constitution, with its stipulation of a power to tax to pay for “the general welfare”

      • adrianratnapala

        Err, the entire premise of both the blog post and the above response is not that Obama’s position on tax is new, or even wrong. It’s his Marxist justification for it. Not that I though of it as Marxist until five minutes ago.

        • good_in_theory

          What, exactly, do you take this particularly “Marxist” justification to be? Where do you see Obama advancing it? What makes it uniquely Marxist?

      • TracyW

        Nope, it’s that the rich, specifically, should be taxed more to provide for government services than they already are.

        • good_in_theory

          A position held by such unrepentant Marxists as Thomas Jefferson.

          • TracyW

            The US’s income tax system is already more progressive than that of France, Canada or Germany’s (see
            If Thomas Jefferson thought it should be even more progressive, firstly, yes, that is quite Marxist, and secondly, did Thomas Jefferson, or indeed Marx, ever express an opinion as to the upper limit of progressivity? In other words, at what point would Jefferson or Obama say “Okay, now the tax burden is unfairly on the rich?”

          • good_in_theory

            I would have thought it would be hard to be a Marxist in the 18th century. Perhaps Marx is a Jeffersonian. Or perhaps the idea of a progressive tax code is rather generic.

            What the US has in federal tax code progressivity, it lacks in absolute level of taxation and degree of income redistribution.

          • TracyW

            I tend to go with the language the person I’m debating with likes to use, and you yourself used the word “Marxists” with reference to Jefferson, albeit sarcastically. If you don’t want to talk about the level of Marxism Jefferson may have displayed, please suggest a word you’d like to use instead to describe the ideas you are talking about, I much prefer to focus on someone’s ideas than their language.

            So now focusing on your ideas, I take it from your reply here firstly that you don’ t know if Jefferson or Marx expressed any opinions on the upper limit of progressivity, and secondly, you think that an income tax code that’s more progressive than that of France or Germany is about right, so Obama should be focusing on raising the total tax take on the middle class at least, as well as the rich, (the absolute level of taxation) and increasing government spending on transfers (degree of income redistribution). Am I right?

          • good_in_theory

            If the policy is “the rich should be taxed more *now*,” then I don’t see how that specific position can be tied to any particular ideology. If the policy is “the rich should pay more in taxes than the poor” I’d say that’s a basic characteristic of pretty much any theory of government that presupposes taxation. Even “regressive” tax rates lead to the rich paying more than the poor.

            How much more the rich should pay compared to the poor is a matter of debate and practical policy. No abstract theory leads to any particular conclusion about this. There is not some golden ratio of taxation out there to be discovered. Obama has not offered a theory for determining this, he has only suggested that the current arrangement is not ideal.

            But all this is rather far from the initial point, which is that the idea that people should pool their resources via taxation and then spend it through some agent in order to provide for the common resources upon which they all depend is a basic property of government, not some threatening new collectivist scheme that Obama has concocted with Saul Alinsky, Bill Ayers, and George Soros in order to take over America.

          • TracyW

            I notice you haven’t suggested a word that you’d like to use instead. As it’s a pain to type ideas out in long-form, I’m going to assign names. They will hopefully be non-ideological, and they will use words around in the 18th century. I’m going to call the idea that
            “The rich should pay more in taxes than the poor” as Alice, and
            “The rich should pay even more in taxes than they are now in the USA” as Fred.
            If you object in any way to *these* names, you can bloody well come up with some short suggestions of your own.

            Now returning to the main ideas, the initial point was that Obama was advocating Fred. The US’s income tax system is already in Alice, Obama was going beyond that to advocate Fred. You are misrepresenting Obama’s argument. I wouldn’t be surprised if you’d also misrepresented Jefferson, who probably only argued for Alice, not Fred.

            “Obama has not offered a theory for determining this, he has only suggested that the current arrangement is not ideal.”

            Yes, that’s the scary thing about the Fred argument. There’s no logical place where that Fred stops. (This is true to some extent of Alice, but with Alice you can say “okay, as a first approximation, people should pay according to their income, so a flat tax is right”). It’s like if President George W Bush suggested that current protections of freedom of speech are not ideal, and then went on to imply that more restrictions would be good, Democrats and independents (and wise Republicans) would be kicking and screaming at that idea, not just because of the problems in it itself, but because there’s no way of knowing where such speech restrictions would stop.

          • good_in_theory

            Essentially every government is in the position of determining the price of the service it provides after the fact. This makes the cost of the service indeterminate and liable to extreme distortion. See also: billing for emergency care in life and death situations.

            This is pretty much the case for every service one obtains without having settled on a price. After receiving the service, the only limits on the price are equity and practicality. Obama’s position is that an increase in taxation would remain equitable. One is free to disagree with the estimation of what is equitable, but not the essentially discretionary nature of the taxing power.

            Even a state which only provided for contract enforcement and military defense could find itself in a situation where it had to tax the hell out of people’s income and wealth – if it was in a severe enough war, for example.

            There’s no way of knowing where any legislation will stop. Muster enough support for an amendment and anything can be legal or illegal. So what?

            I’d object to Republicans restricting speech, but I don’t object to the reality that there is no logical limit to how far they could go in restricting speech. One can do whatever one wants within practical limits, so long as one can gin up the votes and pay enough people to enforce the law.

          • TracyW

            I definitely disagree with the essentially discretionary nature of the taxing power, and not just because any statement that I can’t disagree with something immediately makes me try.
            I think the discretionary nature of the taxing power is a bad idea because it’s an expensive idea. Governments introduce tax credits for all sorts of reasons, as political goodies to important groups (not just corporate welfare, but subsidies to the middle-class, such as mortgage interest deductions). This leads people to waste money preparing tax returns and arguing over them with the tax department. Furthermore, giving away money through the tax system is less transparent than giving it away through the government budget, and thus less democratic. As a British and a NZ citizen, I don’t live under a written constitution, but if I was writing one, I’d definitely put in limits on the discretionary nature of taxation (though not the overall levels, as you state some extreme circumstances would demand high levels of taxation).

            As you yourself point out, the ability of a politician to do whatever they want is limited indeed by the need to gin up the votes and pay people to enforce the law. That is why it’s a good idea to jump up and down when politicians suggest ideas like Fred, that have no limits. And that’s to large extent I think why some countries have been democracies for ages, even despite some dictatorially-inclined leaders (Nixon or in NZ, Robert Muldoon, come to mind), that the leaders in question reached a point where senior politicians of their own party refused to support them and instead insisted they act in a more democratic way.

            I note that you’re not even trying to defend Fred on its merits.

          • good_in_theory

            I’m not interested in offering a defense of a more progressive policy regime.
            The US should have a more robust social safety net and social spending regime. Insofar as that requires higher taxes, taxes should be higher. That’s what I take Fred to be.

            Adi threw a tantrum about the “prospect” of our politics being infected by the view that a government has the discretion to raise taxes so as to meet its expenditures – that it has the discretion to determine how much what it is mandated to provide will cost, and to raise money accordingly. To think that idea novel is simply unhinged. All Obama did was list a number of goods provided by government, and then say that those goods facilitate and contribute to one’s own flourishing, ergo one can well afford to help maintain those goods.

  • Casey

    There’s a perhaps cliche argument to be made here about how wealth is non-zero sum. Many times those on the left who make arguments of the sort Obama made have an assumption that when someone has a lot of wealth that means they took it from someone else.

    Conservatives and libertarians are quick to rightly point out that wealth is actually positive-sum and so when someone amasses a lot of wealth it often means that they actually created wealth that would otherwise not be there. Of course they created that wealth with the help of a lot of people and infrastructure but that doesn’t mean that they necessarily took it from any metaphorical communal pot.

    If we understand wealth according to these terms then it makes much more sense along social justice lines to see the wealthy as having a right to that property which they created.

    We can expand this understanding to see rightful property as being that which does not infringe on another’s having wealth themselves, as being based in positive sum gains.

    I would then take this understanding further to undermine the basis of all intellectual property and patent law. When you use someone else’s idea or a creation of their mind you are not depriving them of anything but merely using your own resources to their fullest potential.

    I’ll call this a ‘humanist’ understanding of wealth and I think it can a the basis of much of left-libertarianism.

    • good_in_theory

      Many times those on the left who make arguments of the sort Obama made have an assumption that when someone has a lot of wealth that means they took it from someone else.”

      Actually, many times those on the right make arguments which assume that those on the left assume wealth is strictly a zero-sum game, when they don’t.

      Is the difference principle (Rawls) zero sum? (It permits only a subset of possible Pareto improvements, which are themselves a subset of possible positive sum improvements).

      Is surplus value (Marx) zero sum?

      No, both are *by definition* positive sum.

      What one could say is that those on the left believe zero or negative sum redistributions of *property* can lead to positive sum increases in something else – utility, happiness, justice, the good, whatever (and, further, dynamically, also in wealth/property: zero sum at t0 but positive sum at t1).

      • Casey

        Perhaps I should have qualified and said ‘SEEM to assume’.

        I would still argue that many on the left have an implicit tendency to downplay the effects of positive sum growth and assume for that reason that wealth is much less elastic than it is. This justifies redistribution at the cost of the growth that they downplay. It also, when they are being less careful, leads to an unconscious assumption that wealth is zero-sum.

        But we’re just arguing about my perception of things at this point versus yours and that kind of argument doesn’t really get us anywhere.

  • Sean II

    I think the real story behind this gaffe is the gulf it reveals between Obama and many of his own supporters. There has always been a split between the faculty lounge brand of progressivism and the rank-and-file ideology of those who call themselves “liberals”, but usually it remains well hidden. This incident exposed it, as evidenced by the fact that Obama’s fans have so far declined to defend the meaning of his statement. They could be out there saying “he’s not wrong”, but very few on his team believe that, so instead they’re shouting “he didn’t meant what you think he said!”

    Most lefty voters in the Unites States are thumping for a couple of issues or an interest group. They’re worried about global warming or racism or student debt, or maybe they’re trial lawyers or members of a teacher’s union or single mothers, etc. Most of them haven’t read Marx, haven’t heard of Rawls, and indeed, most couldn’t tell you why Elizabeth Warren is trending on google lately (that’s the kind of thing we would notice long before them). They don’t think wealth is a social product in any abstract sense, they just don’t like the way it’s presently distributed. They don’t want to do away with the idea of desert, they just don’t believe the people listed in the Forbes 500 genuinely deserve their admiration. But they are hardly revolutionary. Most of them probably think American society is just a couple of specific tweaks away from the way it ought to be.
    I don’t remember who said this, but someone once described Obama as a man who, though neither a radical nor an ideologue, carried a set of prejudices that happened to aligned perfectly with the aspirations of the people who teach political science at Columbia and Law at Harvard. We can be sure THEY have read Rawls, even if he has not.

    But America is a long way from accepting that kind of argument. That’s why this one little comment triggered so much pearl-clutching and “gotcha!” on the right, and so much disingenuous word gaming from the left. In this country, the idea that wealth is a social product that no one individually deserves is new and shocking to everyone except intellectuals.

    • adrianratnapala

      I think the real story behind this gaffe is the gulf it reveals between Obama and many of his own supporters. There has always been a split between the faculty lounge brand of progressivism and the rank-and-file ideology of those who call themselves “liberals”, but usually it remains well hidden.

      Yes, and hidden so that well-read leftists aren’t usually concious of the distinction between wanting specific changes to distribution and thinking ownership is unjust. Even if they accept the distinction, it’s not at the front of their minds. And I think this is why Obama and his speech-writers did not pick up that comment until it was too late.

    • good_in_theory

      “the idea that wealth is a social product that no one individually deserves is new and shocking to everyone except intellectuals.”

      This idea was not said, or invoked, or anything else, by Obama, so whether or not it is shocking is irrelevant.

      • Sean II

        Sure it was. Obama could have confined his remarks to saying “the rich need to pay their fair share”, simply because they have more to pay. He’s said that in the past. Clinton said it before him. That’s a safe and proven Democratic talking point out on the stump.

        In this case he chose to venture a more complex argument about how the production of wealth requires certain conditions, which in turn create an indefinite social claim (he specified no price) on the wealth produced. This holds true with either interpretation of the “that” in “…you didn’t build that”.

        • good_in_theory

          And that claim is implicit in every statement that presumes the state has a right to taxation..

          • Sean II

            Not true. There are plenty of justifications for taxation that make no claims about the origin of wealth. There’s the consequentialist idea that taxes are okay because they’re (allegedly) necessary. There’s a social contract argument that says taxes are okay because we’ll buy someone you need with them in the future.

            Obama was saying something different. He wasn’t saying :give me your money because I need it” or “give me your money because I promise to buy something good with it”. He was saying “You know, when you think about it, a lot of that money isn’t really yours.”

            That claim is not implicit in every possible argument for the taxing power, not at all.

          • good_in_theory

            I’m not sure what you’re trying to suggest with argument one, but it likely presumes whatever is necessary is necessary on normative grounds, ergo one has a duty to provide for others, and that duty corresponds to and justifies the right to take provision from others.

            Argument two presumes payment for services, ergo an exchange of money for goods, and hence a duty to pay for the services rendered. In both cases, as in Obama’s case, an indefinite claim on one’s wealth is made, because the state has the power to quantify the value of the benefit or the weight of the obligation. In each case you have an indefinite obligation to pay out to others.
            Money that you are obligated to give to someone else is money that, “you know, when you think about it, … isn’t really yours.”

          • Sean II

            No…the utilitarian claim is limited by necessity, since those using it would have to identify an end for each and every tax imposed. It’s true I wouldn’t especially trust that arrangement, but at least it is not open ended in principle.

            Likewise for the social contract argument, since (again, in principle) every tax would have to be argued for in terms of a good that was available to the payer of that tax. That’s not open ended either.

            Obama’s claim is very different from these, since he is in effect saying “you owed us that money before you ever made it, because you wouldn’t have made it without us.”

            I think your confusing the difference between a theory that allows for open-ended claims against private wealth (Obama & Warren) and a pair of theories (my two examples) that limit such claims, but are o of course susceptible to abuse in practice.

          • good_in_theory

            That the money was owed in advance does not mean the claim is unlimited.

          • Sean II

            Not by itself, but the idea that you owe society the money even before you make it is part of the idea of wealth as a social product. That’s what sets up the claim.

          • good_in_theory

            So? That one can be construed as owing people a debt before having done anything productive is a trivial point.

          • Sean II

            It is only trivial if you don’t mind being born into a debt that you can neither decline nor repay.

            Me…I’m not so crazy about the idea.

          • good_in_theory

            Denying an obligation to repay is not the same as denying the existence of a debt. Not every debt is a (legal/contractual) obligation.

            Nothing in particular follows from being in debt to others. What is at issue is the degree of responsibility to pay back debts one did not voluntarily assume, not the existence of involuntarily assumed debts. (Unless one wants to play a question begging word game and argue that debts are only debts if voluntarily assumed.)

            Were you born? Then you’re indebted to your mother.

          • Sean II

            Funny how my mother never uses the fact that she gave birth to force me into financing bad schools or ill-advised foreign wars. Of course there are other differences between her and Obama, but that one leaps out at me.

            Also, I’m not trying to be lawyerly or anything, but all through this thread we’ve been using the word “debt” to mean “an enforceable claim by one party on the holdings of another.” If we suddenly start using that word in the sense of “Good call introducing me to that redhead. I owe you a debt, fine sir”, then we’ve wandered into the realm of equivocation.

            Besides, Obama clearly meant debt in the former sense. He wasn’t just musing philosophically about how connected we all are, he was setting up an argument for his preferred tax policy. In other words, he means to collect on the debt he’s asserting.

          • good_in_theory

            I have at no point in this thread been using debt to refer specifically to an enforceable claim. A debt is a claim. Whether or not it is enforceable is a matter of convention. A vast array of debts are not enforceable, for a whole host of reasons.

            Obama thinks debts to society should be enforceable by the state through taxation. That is a position common to pretty much every form of government which uses taxation. The question is not whether or not one is indebted to society – one obviously is. The question is whether, how, and to what extent one should quantify and enforce that debt.

          • Sean II

            If Obama was merely a political philosopher using the concept of social debt in the way you are now, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. If he had said what he did in some offhand passage of his book, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

            But when he makes that comment while campaigning for another four year term at the head of the world’s leading apparatus of coercion, then can we at least agree that HE clearly meant to prepare the ground for the forceable collection of a “debt”?

          • good_in_theory

            You mean the “forceable collection of a debt” carried out by basically every government in the world?

          • Sean II

            I apologize, for it seems I’m not explaining this distinction very well. Let me try something different…

            Imagine six men, named 1, 2, 3, A, B, and C. The first three men have $1,000 each, the last three each have a gun.

            Mr. 1 is approached by Mr. A, who points a gun at him and says “Give me $500. I know some people who desperately need food and clothing and I intend to buy it for them with your money.”

            Meanwhile, Mr. 2 is approached by Mr. B, who also points a gun and says “Give me $500. I am wiser than you, and I mean to spend this money as you would, if you truly knew what was best. $250 will go to keeping you safe from foreign tyrants and $250 will go into a retirement system from which you may draw a fixed income once you’ve turned 65.”

            Finally, Mr. 3 is approached by Mr. C, who points a gun at him and says “That $1,000 is only yours by possession. Some of it is owed to people you have never met, and with whom you never had the chance to negotiate terms. I represent those people, and I believe they are in part responsible for your having that money. On their behalf I now demand a payment of $500.”

            Can you see the difference between these cases? Each involves a tax of 50% collected at gunpoint, and so each might be equally abhorrent to the average libertarian, but the justification is different in every case.

            That’s what has Americans so upset over Obama’s remark. They are accustomed to the first two justifications, but the third is new and strange and offensive to many of them.

            Does that make sense?

          • good_in_theory

            Neither Obama nor Warren said your money is only ‘yours by possession.’ You’re projecting.

            Argument 1: you have an involuntary obligation to charity
            Argument 2: you have an involuntary obligation to contribute to defense and to provide for your own retirement
            Argument 3: Government collects money from you in order to pay for your involuntarily assumed obligations.

            If one finds 3 ‘new and strange and offensive,’ one isn’t thinking very hard. It’s simply the conception of government which underlies any government which uses taxes to fulfill legislative policy. Somehow, government defines a set of obligations for which you are partially responsible, then it takes your money to pay for them. 3 is implicit in 1 and 2. All 1 and 2 do is specify what the involuntarily assumed obligations are.

            I suppose one could isolate this claim in argument 3: Others are responsible for some of your wealth and happiness and you have not compensated them until the government compensates them. But that is obviously true, especially in those cases where people build things for the government which you use, like roads and the courts and so on.

          • Sean II

            In cases 1 and 2, there is no challenge to the idea that wealth is an individually earned reward for hard work, ingenuity, popularity won in the marketplace, risk taking, etc. The first is simply a utilitarian argument that says the state can take what it needs, the second is a paternalistic argument that says the state can spend your money for your own good.

            Case 3 is defined by its challenge to the idea of individual desert. It is an attack on the way wealth accrues to individuals in the process of voluntary exchange. It says “that process fails to compensate all legitimate claimants to the wealth produced, and we reserve the right to correct this by involuntary means.”

            There is no “projecting” required for me to draw that out. It is not necessary for Obama or Warren to exactly list the implications of what they said. By the standards of politics, they’ve already risked more clarity than they should in an election year. Given the kind of response they got, we can be sure they won’t make that mistake again.

          • good_in_theory

            There is no need to challenge the idea that wealth is solely an individually earned reward because such an idea is obviously stupid and false. I’m not concerned if people are offended because of their obviously stupid ideas.

            Obama’s actual case in case 3, which references roads and public infrastructure, and the American system in general, which refers not only to this infrastructure but also the legal structure &etc, is quite obviously a source of individual wealth paid for through taxes. If one pays taxes, one partially pays for those things. If one does not pay taxes, one freerides – that is to say one profits without having put anything in. Which is all the argument Obama and Warren made says

  • Jay_Z

    The wealth of society was built through thousands of years of hashing out the political and social rules, improving medicine, many inventions, much trial and error. None of us are really more deserving than someone born in 2000 B.C. or 1700 A.D. to live in these times.
    There is also about half of the wealth in this country which is inherited, not built, by those who own it.
    Personally, mostly I feel blessed for my life.

  • I guess these various thinkers are all vaguely hostile to the idea that wealth comes from individual hard-work and ingenuity rather than through social cooperation, but all for different reasons and to vastly different conclusions. I don’t see what’s illuminating about running them all together as if they are all part of one big tradition of “you didn’t build that!” Even libertarians should agree that wealth (or at least the vast majority of wealth) comes through social cooperation; to deny that is to deny empirical fact. What matters is what follows from that point–and without the addition of some extra premises, almost nothing does.

    And if you’re suggesting that Obama is of the view that “everything belongs to society” you must have been asleep for the past 4 years, since it is fairly clear that–however much his mean remarks about fat-cat bankers may make your libertarian eyes twitch–he is pretty firmly committed to the basic framework of free-market capitalism against the backdrop of a strong welfare state. That is so far from the view that “everything belongs to society” that I can’t even imagine why you think they’re related.

    If I’ve noticed one theme in your posts it’s a tendency to treat all non-libertarians as if they’re part of one big monolothic socialist-statist tradition, glossing over or ignoring important differences among them. I guess that’s fun in an us-against-them, “rah! rah! libertarians!” sort of way, but it’s really vexing to see. Marx is not Rawls is not Murphy is not Obama, and pretending that they speak with one voice serves no purpose that I can see except demagoguery

    • ThaomasH

      “I guess these various thinkers are all vaguely hostile to the idea that wealth comes from individual hard-work and ingenuity rather than through social cooperation,” Why guess? Find a thinker who thhks in these either or terms and argue agaist the idea. What this has to do with BHO’s trivially correct statement has yet to be demonstrated.