Taxes and the Rich: Paying for It
IN A sometimes feisty stump speech last Friday at a Roanoke, Virginia fire station, Barack Obama proposed to “ask for the wealthy to pay a little bit more” in taxes—to “give something back”—on the grounds that “if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own” because others have “helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive”.
Now, I would not say, as the apoplectic Rush Limbaugh has, that “I think it can now be said, without equivocation—without equivocation—that this man hates this country.” I would say, without equivocation, that Mr Obama is a patriot who sometimes makes demagogic arguments about taxes. In the interests of fairness, let’s go first to the transcript:
There are a lot of wealthy, successful Americans who agree with me—because they want to give something back. They know they didn’t—look, if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own. You didn’t get there on your own. I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart. There are a lot of smart people out there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else. Let me tell you something—there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there. If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business—you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. The internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the internet so that all the companies could make money off the internet.The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together. There are some things, just like fighting fires, we don’t do on our own. I mean, imagine if everybody had their own fire service. That would be a hard way to organize fighting fires. So we say to ourselves, ever since the founding of this country, you know what, there are some things we do better together. That’s how we funded the GI Bill. That’s how we created the middle class. That’s how we built the Golden Gate Bridge or the Hoover Dam. That’s how we invented the internet. That’s how we sent a man to the moon. We rise or fall together as one nation and as one people, and that’s the reason I’m running for president—because I still believe in that idea. You’re not on your own, we’re in this together.
Most right-leaning commentators have fixed on Mr Obama’s claim that “If you’ve got a business—you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.” This is certainly a confusing and tin-eared way to make the point, but it’s clear in context that the substance of Mr Obama’s point is mostly unobjectionable. Building a successful business in an advanced capitalist economy presupposes the existence of a certain physical and institutional infrastructure that no individual could possibly provide on his or her own. There’s no disputing this.