Giving Back

Sometimes you read something so poorly written that it leaves you wondering ‘how the hell did this get published?’ But then you notice that it was in a business magazine, and all is explained.

A recent example of this kind of drivel is “Give Back? Yes, It’s Time For The 99% To Give Back To The 1%“, by the self-proclaimed philosopher Harry Binswanger, at, where he writes under the sub-heading of “I defend laissez-faire capitalism, using Ayn Rand’s Objectivism.” This appears to be the standard the Forbes holds itself down to: defending the indefensible, using a wholly inadequate tool.

Starting out with initial claim number 1:

This time it’s the popular idea that the successful are obliged to “give back to the community.” That oft-heard claim assumes that the wealth of high-earners is taken away from “the community.” And beneath that lies the perverted Marxist notion that wealth is accumulated by “exploiting” people, not by creating value–as if Henry Ford was not necessary for Fords to roll off the (non-existent) assembly lines and Steve Jobs was not necessary for iPhones and iPads to spring into existence.

As Binswanger is a Philosopher, he is completely aware of the multiple fallacies that he is committing in these three sentences. First off, the fallacy of the Strawman, in which he misrepresents the point of view that he is claiming to present here.

The first misrepresentation: to argue that money is “taken” from the community is not to argue that the taking is through exploitation: it’s transactional. It’s a point of fact that in order for money to arrive in the hands of either Ford or Jobs, it’s necessary for that same money to leave the hands of the members of the community. It’s “taken” in exchange for goods and services. This isn’t an “assumption” for any meaningful sense of the word.

The second misrepresentation: if I were to take Marx’s side (and I don’t, generally), I would point out that the exploitation is not, as Binswanger seems to think, of the customer/consumer, but of the worker. As all value is generated through labour (argues the Marxist, the Lockean, the Hegelian, and a whole heap of other philosophers), to pay the worker less than the value of the goods they have produced is to exploit the worker. Genuine philosophers would be embarrassed at getting this kind of basic point wrong, but Binswanger seems happy with his position.

The third misrepresentation: neither Marx nor any other allegedly “collectivist” philosopher that I’m familiar with has ever argued that either the generation of ideas was useless, or that those ideas would inevitably occur to *someone* in society. Sure those guys “created value”, in terms of creating the idea, the blueprint. But, as the Lockean/Hegelian/Marxist idea goes, the worker also creates value, by converting low-value materials into high-value end-products. Certainly, those products are created by passing the materials through the process that Ford and Jobs (and others) created, but just as the product is impossible without the process (idea), so is the product impossible without the labour. This is a rudimentary point, that Binswanger seems not to understand.

Honestly, I’m impressed: it takes effort to fit that much (intentional?) misunderstanding into such a small space. Moving on.

Let’s begin by stripping away the collectivism. “The community” never gave anyone anything. The “community,” the “society,” the “nation” is just a number of interacting individuals, not a mystical entity floating in a cloud above them. And when some individual person–a parent, a teacher, a customer–”gives” something to someone else, it is not an act of charity, but a trade for value received in return.

As is common in arguments of this stripe, Binswanger has created a fiction: a world without society. This is a world without infrastructure, without the roads necessary to deliver finished products to the Individual, without the water pipes necessary for Individual to drink from, without the sewage system for the waste to be taken away from the Individual, without the electricity with which the Individual runs their business. Then Individual engages in Transations with other Individuals, devoid of context or any of the other trappings of “reality”, inconvenient as those trappings are. Somehow, the Individual magically educated themselves (or perhaps the Individuals-who-were-teachers just sought contracts with each and every parent independently), and became the world-striding John Galt of shitty fiction. In the heads of people-who-don’t-examine-ideas-closely, I have no doubt that this makes some kind of sense. I go into this in a lot more depth in another post.

Of course, this wouldn’t be a proper ‘let’s pretend we’re doing Philosophy’ Objectivist rant without quoting from a work of fiction (other than Rand’s published books on Objectivism):

In proportion to the mental energy he spent, the man who creates a new invention receives but a small percentage of his value in terms of material payment, no matter what fortune he makes, no matter what millions he earns. But the man who works as a janitor in the factory producing that invention, receives an enormous payment in proportion to the mental effort that his job requires of him. And the same is true of all men between, on all levels of ambition and ability. The man at the top of the intellectual pyramid contributes the most to all those below him, but gets nothing except his material payment, receiving no intellectual bonus from others to add to the value of his time. The man at the bottom who, left to himself, would starve in his hopeless ineptitude, contributes nothing to those above him, but receives the bonus of all of their brains. Such is the nature of the ‘competition’ between the strong and the weak of the intellect. Such is the pattern of ‘exploitation’ for which you have damned the strong.

Binswanger, of course, quotes a lengthier part (unnecessarily), but the money quote is emboldened above. Now, I hate to do this, but let’s just take a look at reality: the fact of the matter is that apes, dogs, cows, fish, and mollusks all manage to survive just fine, the majority of them (one assumes) operate at significantly lower levels of cognitive ability than Steve Jobs, Henry Ford, or me.

Furthermore, the assertion that people at the top of this alleged “intellectual pyramid” are there through merit (which is the implicit assumption built into this nonsense) flies in the face of reality. Like, seriously? You’re going to argue that Donald Trump is smarter/more educated/better-in-whatever-classist-value-you-wish-to-use than any random high school science teacher?

Meanwhile, any descendant of the Walton Family (the owners of Walmart), for generations, will never, ever have to work a day in their life, while a large quantity of their employees are living in poverty.

I mean… Holy shit… I get that the folks who follow Ayn Rand have, shall we say, a long-distance relationship with reality (fraught with unanswered calls and ignored correspondence), but c’mon Forbes, a little editorial discretion wouldn’t hurt from time to time.

Binswanger, meanwhile, continues his epic fantasy that is perpendicular to reality:

For their enormous contributions to our standard of living, the high-earners should be thanked and publicly honored. We are in their debt.

Most Americans (58.5%) will spend at least one year below the poverty line at some point between ages 25 and 75. The US Census declared that in 2010 15.1% of the general population lived in poverty. Breaking that down by race tells us that 27.4% of all black persons lived in poverty in 2010. Because, Binswanger, intelligence falls along racial lines? Or what, pray tell, are you trying to say exactly?

The essay continues to descend into the standard slavering anti-tax nonsense that is put forth by folks who favour Rand, and kind of has to be read to be believed. This is the kind of nonsense that demonstrates how completely useless “Business magazines” (and their ideologically-aligned customers) are.

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