People Deserve Credit for Their Own Success, Not Government
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Senior presidential advisor Valerie Jarrett and Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren have taken to the airwaves recently to argue that entrepreneurs and business owners owe their success to government—more than to their own individual initiative, hard work, and good ideas.
Jarrett said: “People want fairness. They know that people didn’t get wealthy alone. They got wealthy because they live in a country where a government is doing what it’s supposed to do. It educates our children and provides infrastructure—roads and bridges. It provides the research dollars for science and technology.”
Let’s put aside for now Jarrett’s questionable assertion that the government is, in fact, “doing what it is supposed to do.” Few Americans would look at the condition of our infrastructure or quality of our schools and proclaim “mission accomplished.” More disturbing is her belief that because we rely on government to provide basic public services that it is the government that makes successful people wealthy, not the individuals themselves.
Facilities, services, and functions like infrastructure, education, and national defense are what economists call “public goods.” It’s true that they help create a platform upon which individuals can build, create, and achieve. But are they responsible for people’s success? Absolutely not.
If that were true, then why isn’t everyone successful and wealthy? Public goods are available to everyone and benefit everyone. No one can reap an exclusive return from them. So why do some people succeed and others don’t? Did Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, or Mark Zuckerberg succeed because the government maintains roads between their homes and offices, supports public schools with an average 30% dropout rate, or funds scholarships to the universities that these innovators famously dropped out of? I don’t think so.
In fact, our nation is home to countless American success stories that have been driven by the hard work, ideas, initiative, and risk taking of individuals, not the government. Luck, timing, family background, and a dozen other factors count for something too. In fact, in my job I have the opportunity to talk with successful people all the time. I have never, ever heard any of them claim they did it all on their own. They routinely credit colleagues, investors, spouses, families, great teachers, and other influences from their past. Success is usually a team effort, and successful Americans acknowledge this. But that team rarely includes the government!
Jarrett is not alone in crediting the government with the achievements of individual Americans. Warren takes an even larger leap of illogic and, in doing so, lets the proverbial cat out of the bag as to why she, Jarrett, and others are pressing this point in the first place.
Warren says, “You built a factory and it turned into something terrific or a great idea—God bless, keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay it forward for the next kid who comes along.”
It’s generous of Warren to permit risk takers to keep “a hunk” of what they’ve earned through their blood, sweat, and tears. In Warren’s world, government makes all success possible and is therefore entitled to reap everything that individuals sow.
So there you have it. Jarrett and Warren have elevated a claim that no one is making—that individual success is achieved entirely alone. They have expanded to absurd extremes the role that mundane but necessary public services play in America’s innovative economy—what will we be asked to lionize next, the sewage system and municipal trash removal? Their arguments are designed to justify higher taxes and more government control over our lives.
If Warren and Jarrett think successful people are insufficiently expressing their gratitude for the wonders of government, they should take a look at who pays for public goods. Data show that the top 1% of all households paid 39.5% of total federal income taxes while earning 19.4% of total income in the economy. The top 20% paid 86% of total income taxes while earning 55.9% of total income. Facts are stubborn things—higher income earners actually pay more than their “fair share” for public goods and for the trillions of dollars worth of other government programs.
Demeaning and discounting success, wealth, and individual effort will take our country down a sorry path. Our Founding Fathers devised a system designed to strictly limit the size and role of the federal government and to maximize individual freedom. The “pursuit of happiness” and the ability to enjoy the fruits of your labor free from an overbearing and all-powerful government are at the heart of the American experience.
When individuals are allowed to succeed and keep what they earn, they contribute to society by creating jobs and providing goods and services that people need and want. And successful individuals and businesses need little prodding from government to give back to society—most are active participants in improving their communities and giving generously to charitable causes.
Americans are right to be concerned about growing inequality. There are two ways to address it—drag successful people down or give those who have yet to succeed expanded opportunities to lift themselves up. Government can’t and shouldn’t try to guarantee an equal economic result for everyone. It isn’t about allowing government to “take a big hunk” from some and give it to others. The government is already too large, rapacious, and eager to take credit for others’ successes and hard work. A government big enough to give you everything you need is powerful enough to take everything you have.
The proper role of government is to help create a climate in which opportunities are abundant. It should provide goods and services that individuals cannot reasonably undertake themselves, such as national defense and infrastructure, and establish a social safety net to care for those who cannot care for themselves.
Jarrett and Warren have created a classic straw man argument that they can then beat down in order to promote more government control, raise taxes, and reap votes. Their statements are squarely at odds with the American ideal that individuals are responsible for their own actions, that individual initiative should be rewarded and not punished, and that personal achievement should be celebrated and not discounted.
We can only hope that they aren’t really serious.