“Give Back” Ethics

Excellent! But is he giving, or "giving back"?

John Stossel, the ABC house conservative who yielded to the inevitable and finally migrated to Fox News, takes issue with what he sees as corporate America’s capitulating to the distorting rhetoric of capitalism-bashing. On his website, Stossel cites with approval this letter, sent by George Mason University  Economics Professor Don Boudreaux to the Ritz-Carlton hotel chain:

“Dear Ritz-Carlton:

“Thanks for your e-mail celebrating your and your employees’ participation in “Give Back Getaways” – activities in which you and your employees (along with some of your customers) “give back to the community.”

“Have you taken something that doesn’t belong to you?  If so, by all means give it back!…If, though, you’ve not taken anything that doesn’t belong to you, you possess nothing that you can give BACK.

“Being a profitable corporation, you certainly possess something that you can GIVE; and I applaud the generosity that prompts you, your employees and your customers to GIVE.

“But, please…drop the rhetoric of “giving BACK.” …It fuels the common misapprehension that corporate profits are either ill-gotten gains or, at best, wealth subtracted from that of other persons in society.… your success at business means that you CREATE wealth.  You value the $$$ you get for renting a hotel room by more than you value keeping that room vacant, and your guests value the opportunity to spend a few nights …

“Your profits aren’t pirate booty; they’re legitimate earnings.

Prof. Boudreax and Stossel have put their finger on a messy ethical issue of long standing: does a successful business owe something to the community besides providing goods and services, creating jobs, treating its investors fairly, paying taxes and obeying the laws? They are right that progressives use the term “give back” with a pejorative edge, as if successful businesses and individuals are morally obligated to pay a fine for succeeding, because their success comes at the cost of some innocent citizen’s failure. President Obama resorted to this cliche in his recent speech on the deficit, when he said,

“This is not because we begrudge those who’ve done well -– we rightly celebrate their success. Instead, it’s a basic reflection of our belief that those who’ve benefited most from our way of life can afford to give back a little bit more.

This kind of rhetoric sets many Americans’ teeth on edge because it suggests that all “benefits” flow from some combination of government largesse and dumb luck, ignoring the role of risk, initiative, hard work and innovation in personal and organizational success.

The issue is a lot more complicated than either Stossel or the President let on. When companies receive tax breaks, regulatory assistance and subsidies, they do have benefits they were given that they can and should seek to “give back.” Nor is it fanciful to suggest that the American way of life, the protection of our military and law enforcement personnel, and the existence of the nation’s universities, communications networks and transportation infrastructure play a great role in any business or personal success, justifying the concept of “giving back”—though it does not justify Obama’s disingenuous characterization of income taxes as “giving” anything, since they are mandatory fees.

The problem is that “give back” has multiple meanings, including the “give back your ill-gotten gains, you capitalist pigs who feast off the backs of the virtuous worker class!” spin that Boudreaux and Stossel resent, and the “give to the community that includes our customers and employees as a way of showing appreciation, support, and good citizenship” sense used by corporate responsibility advocates. Companies like Ritz-Carlton intend the latter meaning, and anti-business forces use it against them. Businesses that are ethical and law-abiding should never apologize for being successful, and nobody, certainly not the President, should suggest otherwise. Yet our language has limitations: omitting “back” makes corporate contributions to charity and community projects sound like selfless beneficence bestowed on “the little people” by their betters in the executive suites. Face it: even the best corporations “give back” to their community and the public because they want to be liked and respected; it is just good business.

“Give back” isn’t inaccurate or wrong, and I think it is a justifiable upgrade from “give.” While we are debating the meaning of “give back,” perhaps we can eventually discuss the fairness of allowing almost 50% of the public to accept the benefits of living in this country without paying any income taxes at all.  These Americans do have something to “give back,” and an obligation to do so. The tough question is, how? Before we can approach that brain-teaser, however, there has to be a consensus that the obligation exists.

Funny…I thought we had settled all this on a cold January day 48 years ago, when a nation cheered an inspiring young leader who said,

“Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”

6 thoughts on ““Give Back” Ethics

  1. In our home school, in the kitchen window hangs this plaque:

    ASK NOT WHAT YOUR MOTHER CAN DO FOR YOU, BUT WHAT YOU CAN DO FOR YOUR MOTHER.

    No one can miss it or its meaning.

  2. Jack,
    Except that libertarians don’t like: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”, either. If I want to “do” something for my country, that’s for me to decide, not for the president to mandate nor others to expect of me. Otherwise, I agree.

    -Neil

  3. While we are debating the meaning of “give back,” perhaps we can eventually discuss the fairness of allowing almost 50% of the public to accept the benefits of living in this country without paying any income taxes at all. These Americans do have something to “give back,” and an obligation to do so. The tough question is, how?

    Might I suggest a national sales tax?

  4. I always liked the rather ambiguous comment of Edward A. Filene, founder of the Filene department stores: “Why shouldn’t the American people take half my money from me? I took all of it from them.”

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