The Collectivist Notion of “Giving Back to Society”

by | Feb 11, 2002

Addressing the World Economic Forum meeting in New York last week, Microsoft founder Bill Gates said, “I think it’s a healthy sign that there are demonstrators in the streets. They are raising the question of ‘is the rich world giving back enough?’ ” Almost universally accepted today is the notion that successful, wealthy people should […]

Addressing the World Economic Forum meeting in New York last week, Microsoft founder Bill Gates said, “I think it’s a healthy sign that there are demonstrators in the streets. They are raising the question of ‘is the rich world giving back enough?’ ”

Almost universally accepted today is the notion that successful, wealthy people should “give back” much of their wealth. For years, liberals castigated Gates for not “giving back.” Then Gates started giving away billions and now says, “I decided at a very young age … that whatever wealth I had I would want to give back to society.” A search on Google for the exact phrase “give back to the community” returns 25,500 Web pages; the thousands claiming to “give back” include the Magic Johnson Foundation, tennis star Venus Williams, Dell Computer founder Michael Dell, Federated Department Stores, and former Spice Girl Geri Halliwell. In 1997, at the Presidents’ Summit for America’s Future, all five American Presidents from Ford through Clinton declared, “Our obligation, distinct and unmistakable, is to assure that all young Americans have … an opportunity to give back to their communities through their own service.” Thus the “give-back” notion is a key premise in the current push for community service, as espoused by President Bush in his State of the Union address.

Though so many say they “give back,” rarely does anyone try to explain precisely what the phrase “give back” means.

Note the two words. Those advocating “giving back” are not merely saying that a successful individual should give to society, out of generosity or some altruist notion. They are saying that he should give back; that he has taken something that–in justice, according to the noble code of earning one’s money and paying one’s debts–he must return.

But productive individuals earn money by selling products to customers; a customer buys a product only when he values the product more highly than he values the money he must spend for it. Therefore, a producer such as Gates has not “taken” any money; he has traded for it, offering value for value. Isn’t it interesting that no one asks customers to give back Microsoft Windows, Excel, Word, etc. to Gates?

Give-backers, however, assume a second argument: they assume that a producer such as Gates should “give back” to society because of all the unpaid-for benefits he got from society. If Gates had been born a thousand years ago, they think, he could not have become so rich. He would not have known how to make computer software, and no one would have wanted it anyway. Gates, they say, is benefiting from the accumulated knowledge and wealth of society, and he has not paid for that.

Yes, Gates is benefiting from that knowledge and wealth. But from where–or whom–did that knowledge and wealth come? It came from great creators: individuals such as Aristotle, Newton, Carnegie, Henry Ford; and contemporaries such as Steve Jobs and Gordon Moore. And it also came from more modest creators such as Gates’ parents and anyone else who may have helped him along his way. Though Gates had to exert great mental effort to gain the ability to understand and use this knowledge and wealth, it is true that he should properly owe a debt of gratitude to those creators. It would be understandable if he would want to give some gift or recognition to those individuals–if they were still alive.

But the give-backers don’t want Gates to “give back” to people like Carnegie, Ford, and Jobs; they want Gates to “give back” to the poor and the depraved–from drug addicts to third-world dictators–those who have given him nothing. The give-backers equivocate on the word “society.” They first use the word “society” to refer to those individuals who have created the knowledge and wealth made available to Gates and other producers, and they later use the same word to refer to those individuals who have created nothing and to whom Gates and other producers should “give back.” It is as if they think society is a single, living organism, a single, collective consciousness, a single moral agent–instead of a collection of sovereign individuals who must be judged individually.

Indeed, that is precisely what intellectuals behind the give-back notion do think. This was the view of German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel, one of the main fathers of the Marxist, Fascist, and Nazi styles of collectivism, and still a favorite in university philosophy departments. The leading American philosopher Josiah Royce, a Hegelian, wrote in 1892 that to Hegel “the self is a world of organically interrelated selves, moments of the infinite organism.” “Society is a living organism,” wrote President Woodrow Wilson in 1913 and popular author Joyce Carol Oates in 1990. For a collectivist, therefore, an action of an individual is really an action of the collective. Hence if one individual does something of value, everyone deserves equal credit for it. When we receive value from one person, who is really just a part of a collective organism, we should “give back” that value to all parts of the same one organism. And the “parts” we especially should “give back” to are the poorer parts, since each part deserves as much wealth as any other.

Brazenly, collectivists admonish producers such as Gates in the name of justice. Yet their premise, which credits and blames all for the actions of each, is a negation at root of the very concept of justice. Justice requires recognition that moral choices are made by individuals, not some mystical group-organism, that an individual must be judged based on his own virtues, not the sum of virtues of those in a group. If I become wealthy from reading books by great businessmen, that does not mean I owe something to people who never had job.

Since the collectivist premise of “giving back” was unchallenged when productive geniuses such as Gates were told to give up their money to society, it is not surprising that all Americans are now being told, by our President, to give up years of our lives. Hegel wrote, “A single person, I need hardly say, is something subordinate, and as such he must dedicate himself to the ethical whole.” His next sentence was: “Hence if the state claims life, the individual must surrender it.”

In justice, productive individuals have no obligation to give away one penny of what they have earned, just as a customer has no obligation to “give back” the automobile and computer he has bought. And all of us should be grateful to producers, not for their charity, but for their productiveness. The legacy of knowledge and wealth created by Carnegie, Rockefeller, and Ford is not their charitable foundations; it is the industries these men built.

Ron Pisaturo is a writer and philosopher. He has written a screenplay, The Merchant of Mars. Ronald Pisaturo is the author of A Validation of Knowledge, The Longevity Argument, The Merchant of Mars, and Masculine Power, Feminine Beauty.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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