I always find Thanksgiving posts hard to write. How can you identify what you’re thankful for without bragging? How can you express the depth of your gratitude without seeming preachy? Maybe you can’t, but so often throughout the year I will jot down a note, “include this in Thanksgiving post!” There really is so much to be grateful for. So I will swallow my prideful desire not to seem preachy or braggy, and offer my thoughts on gratitude this Thanksgiving Day….
“Sometimes I get angry over how high my taxes are, then I look at the roads and the streetlights and think, ‘We have so much–I should pay my fair share.'” That’s what one of the dads at my daughter’s soccer game said to me and it’s a thought that had occurred to me too. Elizabeth Warren tapped into that sentiment in 2011 with her famous rant:
There is nobody in this country who got rich on their own. Nobody. You built a factory out there—good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory….Now look. You built a factory and it turned into something terrific or a great idea—God bless! Keep a hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.
I really can’t go into all the false assumptions underlying Warren’s diatribe, but there is an underlying feeling each of us has that she is exploiting: I was born naked and there is no way on earth that in my short life I could have invented every modern convenience and produced every item I own. In other words, I have more than I deserve. This is true. It is also true in a way that I have less than I deserve. Let me explain, lest I seem ungrateful on this day of gratitude.
There are roughly 7 billion people on earth. There have been somewhere around 125 billion humans altogether. The vast majority of those people had to produce or die. Families and other social units help even out the lumps on how and when each person’s product is used to sustain him or her, but in the end, everyone who can is expected to produce. As improvements in the means of production accumulate, the product of each unit of labor increases and surplus is born. Surplus. The source of all wealth. And the source of all parasitism. As Nock put it,
There are two methods or means, and only two, whereby man’s needs and desires can be satisfied. One is the production and exchange of wealth; this is the economic means. The other is the uncompensated appropriation of wealth produced by others; this is the political means. …The State…is the organization of the political means.
To the extent our ancestors produced surplus goods or developed technology by which we ourselves could produce surplus, we have benefited from the labor of others. To the extent the State redistributed this surplus to its cronies, others have benefited from the efforts and inventions of our forebears at our expense. Warren’s rant actually hints at the injustice we suffer at the hands of the State, which creates mismatches between effort and gain. It is not “society” (read: the State) to whom we should be grateful, as Warren suggests, but the individuals who actually contributed by employing their God-given talents to the betterment of life on earth.
Do I deserve to live vermin-free with air conditioning in a house with a leak-proof roof? I wouldn’t say I deserve it or don’t deserve it. Do I do it according to the rules of property ownership? Yes. Do I benefit from the legacy of over a hundred billion human beings before me who created surplus for their progeny? YES! And I can only imagine if suppressed interest rates and government-funded oil wars and subsidized infrastructure didn’t generate hyper-consumption, how many perfectly good old structures (a legacy of the surplus left us by our forebears) would still be standing, freeing us up to do other things; or if that hyper-consumption together with redistribution of wealth and cronyism didn’t misallocate resources and skew incentives, how much more discretionary time and money we would have to nurture our relationships or spend time really achieving our human potential to philosophize or to try to gain insight into the true nature of God.
Ms Warren’s suggestion that the central planners grease the wheels rather than gum up the works rings false to this libertarian. However, though she misplaces the credit, it doesn’t mean gratitude is not in order.
I grew up the youngest of nine in a small, stuffy house with many people, little privacy and limited resources. Even so, I was grateful that I had enough to eat and clothes to wear and wasn’t dying of exposure out on the street and didn’t have flies landing on my eyeballs like the pictures of Ethiopian kids we saw on TV back then. And now I am grateful every single day for so much more. From hot showers and a warm bed, to the strength and health to do the mountains of work it takes to raise my kids and dogs and fish and turtle (the turtle is way more work than I thought it would be!) I work with joy out of gratitude for the very ability to work. And I am very, very grateful for all the people I love, for the opportunity to add value (from picking up dog poop to writing this post), for the comforts I enjoy, for good nights’ sleep, and for literally a thousand other things–maybe a million!
I also always try to remember to whom I must be grateful. God first, of course; then my husband, my parents, my grandparents, their parents (and so on); my siblings, my friends, my children; the great thinkers, the defenders of truth and justice, those who offer examples of courage and dignity, those educators who work hard to help my children cultivate what is noble in them…For each thing that elicits my gratitude, I know there is a person (more likely many people) in this world or in our past who contributed to that improvement in my existence. My hope is that I, and my children, and their children (and so on), can add ourselves to that list of unnamed humans with joy and gratitude for our ability to make our own small contributions in turn.
So yes, Elizabeth, we should “pay it forward,” freely and with joy, out of gratitude to those who themselves contributed freely and with joy to this wonderful world and to our ability to enjoy it and to appreciate it.
With sincere humility and gratitude, I wish you a
For my previous Thanksgiving posts, click: