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Rich People Have an Obligation to Give Back
by Lawrence W. Reed
For a society that has fed, clothed, housed, cared for,
informed, entertained, and otherwise enriched more people at higher
levels than any in the history of the planet, there sure is a lot
of groundless guilt in America.
Manifestations of that guilt abound. The example that peeves me
the most is the one we often hear from well-meaning philanthropists
who adorn their charitable giving with this little chestnut: "I
want to give something back." It always sounds as though they're
apologizing for having been successful.
Translated, that statement means something like this: "I've
accumulated some wealth over the years. Never mind how I did it, I
just feel guilty for having done it. There's something wrong with
my having more than somebody else, but don't ask me to explain how
or why because it's just a fuzzy, uneasy feeling on my part.
Because I have something, I feel obligated to have less of it. It
makes me feel good to give it away because doing so expunges me of
the sin of having it in the first place. Now I'm a good guy, am I
It was apparent to me how deeply ingrained this mindset has
become when I visited the gravesite of John D. Rockefeller at
Lakeview Cemetery in Cleveland a couple years ago. The wording on a
nearby plaque commemorating the life of this remarkable
entrepreneur implied that giving much of his fortune away was as
worthy an achievement as building the great international
enterprise, Standard Oil, that produced it in the first place. The
history books most kids learn from these days go a step further.
They routinely criticize people like Rockefeller for the wealth
they created and for the profit motive, or self-interest, that
played a part in their creating it, while lauding them for
relieving themselves of the money.
More than once, philanthropists have bestowed contributions on
my organization and explained they were "giving something back."
They meant that by giving to us, they were paying some debt to
society at large. It turns out that, with few exceptions, these
philanthropists really had not done anything wrong.
They made money in their lives, to be sure, but they didn't
steal it. They took risks they didn't have to. They invested their
own funds, or what they first borrowed and later paid back with
interest. They created jobs, paid market wages to willing workers,
and thereby generated livelihoods for thousands of families. They
invented things that didn't exist before, some of which saved lives
and made us healthier. They manufactured products and provided
services, for which they asked and received market prices.
They had willing and eager customers who came back for more
again and again. They had stockholders to whom they had to offer
favorable returns. They also had competitors, and had to stay on
top of things or lose out to them. They didn't use force to get
where they got; they relied on free exchange and voluntary
contract. They paid their bills and debts in full. And every year
they donated some of their profits to lots of community charities
no law required them to support. Not a one of them that I know ever
did any jail time for anything.
So how is it that anybody can add all that up and still feel
guilty? I suspect that if they are genuinely guilty of anything,
it's allowing themselves to be intimidated by the losers and the
envious of the world-the people who are in the redistribution
business either because they don't know how to create anything or
they simply choose the easy way out. They just take what they want,
or hire politicians to take it for them.
Or like a few in the clergy who think that wealth is not made
but simply "collected," the redistributionists lay a guilt trip on
people until they disgorge their lucre-notwithstanding the Tenth
Commandment against coveting. Certainly, people of faith have an
obligation to support their church, mosque, or synagogue, but
that's another matter and not at issue here.
A person who breaches a contract owes something, but it's to the
specific party on the other side of the deal. Steal someone else's
property and you owe it to the person you stole it from, not
society, to give it back. Those obligations are real and they stem
from a voluntary agreement in the first instance or from an immoral
act of theft in the second. This business of "giving something
back" simply because you earned it amounts to manufacturing
mystical obligations where none exist in reality. It turns the
whole concept of "debt" on its head. To give it "back" means it
wasn't yours in the first place, but the creation of wealth through
private initiative and voluntary exchange does not involve the
expropriation of anyone's rightful property.
How can it possibly be otherwise? By what rational measure does
a successful person in a free market, who has made good on all his
debts and obligations in the traditional sense, owe something
further to a nebulous entity called society? If Entrepreneur X
earns a billion dollars and Entrepreneur Y earns two billion, would
it make sense to say that Y should "give back" twice as much as X?
And if so, who should decide to whom he owes it? Clearly, the whole
notion of "giving something back" just because you have it is built
on intellectual quicksand.
Successful people who earn their wealth through free and
peaceful exchange may choose to give some of it away, but they'd be
no less moral and no less debt-free if they gave away nothing. It
cheapens the powerful charitable impulse that all but a few people
possess to suggest that charity is equivalent to debt service or
that it should be motivated by any degree of guilt or
A partial list of those who honestly do have an obligation to
give something back would include bank robbers, shoplifters, scam
artists, deadbeats, and public officials who "bring home the
bacon." They have good reason to feel guilt, because they're
But if you are an exemplar of the free and entrepreneurial
society, one who has truly earned and husbanded what you have and
have done nothing to injure the lives, property, or rights of
others, you are a different breed altogether. When you give, you
should do so because of the personal satisfaction you derive from
supporting worthy causes, not because you need to salve a guilty
"On Giving Back" by George C. Leef:
"Giving Up on Giving Back" by Sandy Ikeda:
"Giving Back" by Steven Horwitz: http://tinyurl.com/pwqjqzw
(Editor'sNote: Versions of this essay have
previously appeared in FEE's journal,The
Freeman, under the title, "Who Owes What To