Obamanomics: Or, Reflections on the Redistribution of the Wealth of Others

The spin by the major media is that the medium was the message, but the substance of the remarks delivered on April 20 by President Barack Obama to a crowd of Facebook employees deserves attention.

Indeed, for a speech panned as featuring softball, scripted questions, the Commander in Chief said a few things worth a raise of the eyebrows. Courtesy of Wired’s Ryan Sengal:

“If you are an entrepreneur with a startup in a garage, good luck getting health insurance,” Obama said. “Nothing is easier than solving a problem on the backs of people who are poor, who don’t have lobbyists and don’t have power.” … “We lose $4 billion a year on subsidies to oil companies. Now think about this: The top 5 oil companies have made between $75 billion and $125 billion each year over the last few years. No one is doing better than Exxon — well, maybe Facebook is. Why can’t we remove the tax cuts and spend the money on alternative energy to save the planet,” Obama said, to big applause.

First, some translation is in order. “Remove the tax cuts” is code for “raise taxes,” which is the centerpiece of Obama’s domestic economic agenda. To “save the planet” means to impose federal regulations that make it more difficult to be one of those start-up entrepreneurs in a garage. And the $4 billion in subsidies to oil companies pales next to the $8.8 billion in public-sector union dues that largely subsidizes the Democratic Party — perhaps eliminating these dues could help pay for health insurance for sick garage-bound entrepreneurs?

It seems that the more Obama speaks, the more he suggests that it’s necessary and proper for government to redistribute the income of those accursed “millionaires and billionaires” and put it to some public purpose. Recall his famous comment that “at some point, you’ve made enough money.”

Think about that for a moment, and ask the question: What moral right permits the government to expropriate the income of successful Americans in order to fund the pet projects of liberal activists?

Consider a hypothetical small town in Middle America — a small city, with bonds of community. If a family becomes financially strapped, perhaps because of the loss of a job, does a neighbor have a moral duty to render financial assistance? A good Christian soul should affirm with a resounding aye. The roots of that duty lie in a person’s link to other people, and taking care of one’s brothers and sisters is a virtue that requires both good intent and good action. If taking care of one’s neighbors becomes disassociated from private virtue — chiefly through taxation, and the replacement of local charity with public welfare — then the bonds of community fray. The donor obtains no moral benefit, and the recipient has no corresponding duty to the community or to remove himself with all due speed from the public dole. Public morality requires individual actors, not the mass transfer of assets with decisions made in a distant capital. The alternative is to turn needy people into anonymous casefiles and taxpayers into cash spigot turned on and off at governmental whim. You simply cannot enforce community values through the channels of large government. Real community happens among real people in small groups across the fruited plain.

President Obama is skilled at using red herrings and straw men to suggest that opposition to his redistribution scheme comes from the greed of wealthy special interests. Yet the real question is why Obama’s plans to confiscate income from the successful ought to be considered as morally proper on its face. Why should the wealthy pay a greater percentage of their income in taxation than the poor? Why must millionaires and billionares be excoriated for their success? What is the moral claim to the income of others? I have yet to hear a dedicated, coherent moral argument for why it’s appropriate for 1 percent of taxpayers to surrender almost 35 percent of tax revenues and the top 50 percent of taxpayers to cough up more than 96.5 percent of tax revenues. Why is this preferable to everyone paying the same relative tax rate?

You don’t hear Obama talking about the why of it, only about the how. He assumes the virtue of his position, but there’s no ethical paradigm on the books that’s comfortable with his redistributionist agenda (except, of course, egoism). A consequentialist would have to look at 60 years’ accumulated evidence that high taxation and government-sponsored welfare programs has led to the breakdown of poor families and the loss of jobs at the margin related to the tax squeeze. A deontologist would have to evaluate the relative duties of a taxpayer under the Constitution. A divine-command or natural-law theorist would have to study Scripture for its injunctions about chairty. The list goes on, but the result is the same: Redistributionist policies have no serious moral foundation.

Except, of course, in the “moral drama” of the political stage. Obama is promising bread and circuses for free for everyone but the small percentage of taxpayers who must foot the bill. Such a strategy gets votes, and power, but without the benefit of virtue.

Spending others’ money is easy. Finding a moral justification for it, not so much.

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1 comment

  1. I think your argument has a fundamental flaw: you are discussing a Bizarro-dimension Obama, not the President Obama that exists in what you and I call reality. I say this based on this statement:

    “What moral right permits the government to expropriate the income of successful Americans in order to fund the pet projects of liberal activists?”

    Speaking as a liberal activist, I WISH my pet projects were getting funded. Teachers would be rolling in Lexuses, every schoolchild would have an iPad2, the phrase “homeless families” would be a bad memory, and our troops would be at their homes with their families.

    Furthermore, the hypothetical American small town you depict doesn’t exist. American small towns have been decimated by meth epidemics, foreclosures, unemployment, and above-average divorce rates.

    So, when I read a piece like yours, it cracks me up, because, really, you have a great imagination.

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