Robert Paul Wolff writes,
Every one of us comes into the world endowed with a material and cultural inheritance that we have not earned and can never justify. There are no "takers" and "makers" in our society. All of the takers are makers, and all of the makers are takers. And quite often those who start out with, or end up with, the most stuff have worked considerably less industriously than those who start out and end up with the least.
It is this fact that constitutes the real justification for Marx's Critique of the Gotha Program slogan: "From each according to his ability; to each according to his need."
The first sentence expresses a conjunction of two claims. The first is perfectly obvious. I did not earn my good eyesight or any of the material and cultural benefits that accrued to me upon birth. The same is true of all of us. The second claim, however, is not obvious. The claim that I can never "justify" unearned benefits presupposes that they need justification. It is not at all clear that unearned benefits need justification, or even what 'justification' in this context means. It is true that I didn't do anything to deserve my good eyesight, my intelligence, my being born in Southern California, etc. But I have a right to my natural and cultural endowments despite my not having earned them. It is my right to my two eyes that makes it wrong for the state to take one of my eyes and 'redistribute' it to a sightless person.
Wolff's first sentence, being a conjunction of a truth and what is arguably a falsehood is itself arguably a falsehood. However his argument proceeds, it will be arguably unsound.
As for the second and third sentences, it is trivially true that all takers are makers, and vice versa. Charles Manson is a maker and Bill Gates is a taker. But no substantive juice can be squeezed from a trivial truth such as this. In particular, one cannot validly infer from it the socialist "From each according to his ability; to each according to his need."
Nor can the utility of the taker-maker distinction be impugned by hammering on the trivial truth. To put it mildly, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs are much more makers than takers, whereas Manson is much more a taker than a maker.
Wolff is essentially just reiterating the Obama "You didn't build that!" riff, to which I respond:1. It is true that we have all been helped by others and that no one's success is wholly a matter of his own effort. "No man is an island." No one pulls himself up by his own bootstraps. But of course no conservative denies this. Not even libertarians deny it. What Obama is doing is setting up a straw man that he can easily knock down. He imputes a ridiculous view to the conservative/libertarian and then makes the obvious point that the ridiculous view is ridiculous.Wolff is doing the same thing.
2. Not everyone is lucky enough to have great teachers, but most of us have had some good teachers along the way. Sure. But there is no necessary connection to Big Government. I went to private schools: elementary, high school, college, and graduate school. And my teaching jobs were all at private schools. Obama falsely assumes that only government can provide education. That is not only a false assumption but a mendacious one as well. Obama is certainly aware that there are alternatives to public education such as home-schooling and private schools. There is also autodidacticism: Eric Hoffer, the 'longshoreman philosopher,' didn't even go to elementary school. A relative taught him to read when he was very young but beyond that he is totally self-taught. Of
course, he is a rare exception.
There is also the question whether the federal government has any legitimate role to play in education even if one grants (as I do) that state and local governments have a role to play. It is simply nonsense, though in keeping with his Big Government agenda, for Obama to suggest that we need the federal government to provide education. It is also important to point out that the federal
Department of Education, first set up in the '60s, has presided over a dramatic decline in the quality of education in the U. S. But that is a huge separate topic.
3. With respect to roads and bridges and infrastructure generally, it is ridiculous to suggest that these products of collective effort are all due to the federal government or even to state and local government. Obama is confusing the products of collective effort with the products of government effort. It is a silly non sequitur to think that because I cannot do something by myself that I need government to help me do it. One can work with others without the intrusion of government. He is also confusing infrastructure with public infrastructure. The first is a genus, the second a species thereof.
4. How did the Internet begin? This from a libertarian site: "The internet indeed began as a typical government program, the ARPANET, designed to share mainframe computing power and to establish a secure military communications network." So the role of the federal government in the genesis of the Internet cannot be denied.
But what do we mean by 'Internet'? Those huge interconnected mainframes? That is the main chunk of Internet infrastructure. But don't forget the peripherals. For the blogger to use that infrastructure he first of all needs a personal computer (PC). Did Big Government provides us with PCs? No. It was guys like Jobs and Wozniak tinkering in the garage. It was private companies like IBM. And let's not forget that it was in the USA and not in Red China or the Soviet Union or North Korea that PCs were developed. Would Jobs and Wozniak and Gates have been motivated to do their hard creative work in a state without a free economy? Did any commie state provide its citizens with PCs? No, but it did
provide them with crappy cars like the Trabant and the Yugo. Germans are great engineers. But Communism so hobbled East Germany that the Trabant was the result.
How do you hook up the PC to the Internet? Via the phone line. (Telephony, by the way, was not developed by the government. Remember Alexander Graham Bell and his associates?) To convert digital information into analog information transmissible via phone lines and back again you need a modulator-demodulator, a modem. Who gave us the modem? Government functionaries? Al Gore? Was Obama the mama of the modem? Nope. Dennis C. Hayes invented the PC modem in 1977. In the private sector.
Back in the day we operated from the C prompt using DOS commands. That was before the GUI: graphical user interface. Who invented that? Credit goes to a number of people working for Xerox, Apple, and Microsoft. All in the private sector.
And then there is Hyper Text Markup Language (HTML). Who invented that and with it the World Wide Web (WWW)? Tim Berners-Lee in the private sector. The WWW is not the same as the
Internet. The WWW is a huge collection of interconnected hypertext documents accessible via the Internet. The government did not give us the WWW.
Returning now to the blog that I built. I built the blog, but I didn't build the Typepad platform that hosts the blog. Did Al Bore or any other government functionary give us Typepad or Blogger? No. That too is in the private sector.
And then there are the search engines. Did the government give us Google?