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Metaphysical Business

by Anthony Esolen

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  • Description:
    Anthony Esolen reflects on President Obama's statement, "You didn't build that." Work is at the core of our humanity, and our ownership of what we produce precedes laws demanding that we give it back to “community” in the abstract.
  • Larger Work:
    Public Discourse: Ethics, Law, and the Common Good
  • Publisher & Date:
    Witherspoon Institute, August 15, 2012

“You didn’t build that!” exclaimed President Obama. If you have risked all the capital you have, worked three times as many hours a week as is legal to require any employee to work, lost sleep weighing whether to spend a month of good profits on improvement to the kitchen or on another waitress, and slogged up mountains of state and federal tax forms, compliance forms, license applications, and payroll records, you didn’t build that restaurant where my family and I have breakfast after church every week. You weren’t alone, said Obama. Somebody had to teach your help how to read. Somebody had to pave the road in front of your restaurant. Somebody had to grow the food you prepare.

Ergo, you must “give back to the community.” Translation: you must pay higher taxes to the federal government. You must allow us to siphon money away from the actual community where you live, where you do most of your hiring and spending and giving, so that we can employ it for our own purposes—some of which include handing it to people you don’t know who live a thousand miles away. The reason is simple enough. Pal, we want more money, and you happen to have some. Mafiosi don’t get rich by squeezing drunks in an alley.

“You didn’t build that!” is probably the most preposterous statement I have ever heard from an American politician. A high bar to clear, no doubt, but let me justify the choice. It puts the effect before the cause. Suppose someone were to say, “If it weren’t for cities, there wouldn’t be such things as big family farms,” and therefore farmers owe it to city-dwellers to hand over more of their profits. But the farmer could well reply, “If it weren’t for farms, there would be no such things as cities,” and that is absolutely correct; without a surplus of food that can be stored, no city can exist. The farm is the foundation of the city, and not the reverse.

Similarly, the actions of risk-takers are the foundation of any civil order: they make it possible for there to be something to be governed. Granted, those risk-takers require law to protect their property, and government to enforce the law. But it is crucial to note the order of cause and even the order of being. No one writes a law raising tariffs on imported cotton unless there is already native cotton being grown. No one builds a railroad from Pittsburgh to Chicago unless there is already something to transport on it. Without the creativity and the daring of the businessman (or farmer, or prospector, or rancher, or inventor), we all live hand to mouth, and we take our orders from the leader of our tribe or clan.

But beneath the ignorance and ingratitude of the president’s statement lies a more dangerous error. It is a mistake about the human being. Richard Weaver once wrote that the last shred of healthy metaphysics that we Americans could count on was our respect for private property. Weaver was no acolyte in the church of capitalism. What he meant was that when an object is owned—or, in the case of my favorite restaurant, when it is made—it undergoes an ontological change. Ownership may be respected in the positive law, but it precedes the law, just as the human being precedes it. By our language we intuit the change. We say, “Al has put himself into the Granite Hill Restaurant,” and we mean more than what Locke meant when he said that a man’s work on what nature provides gives him a prescriptive right to the fruit of his labor; as when someone happens upon an apple tree in the woods and picks the apples. We mean that the restaurant or the farm or the factory is his creation. If we attack his restaurant, we don’t simply attack the source of his money. We attack the man himself, at the core of his humanity.

Once we see this, we see how irrelevant are the claims that Al’s property is not peculiarly his own, because he could not have built it without roads and schools and water lines and so forth. It isn’t just, as I’ve said, that without people like Al, there would be no roads and no settled places for the roads to go to. It’s that what the hired man who paves the road does, and what Al does, are qualitatively different things. The road is part of the general environment. It is no one’s property. It has been made, but it is not a creation in the same way that the restaurant is. It involved no risk. It was not the object of loving (or frustrating) concern. It has no tradition. It has no life lent to it by personal human care.

That in turn has implications for assessing what Al “owes” to “the community.” Consider the case of a painter lying on his back on scaffolding, painting the ceiling of a local church. He isn’t Michelangelo, but he’s pretty good, and he’s pretty well-remunerated. He is, indirectly, dependent upon the men who hewed the lumber for the scaffolding, and the men who quarried the rocks that were powdered to make his paints. But most people would recognize immediately that the painting is his work in a special way. Now then, a community is a union of persons seeking the common good. It is not a collective of ants. In the very act of pouring himself, his love, his intelligence, his perseverance, and his loyalty into the restaurant, Al, like the painter, is already giving a great deal to the community. Most obviously, he gives his neighbors a fine place to go for a good meal—with blueberry pancakes the size of a whole platter. But he gives something more important than that. He gives the example of a fully human work, which his cooks and waiters share in, derivatively, and which his customers enjoy.

The American is already taxed just for breathing, if we are to understand the recent Supreme Court decision aright: Congress has the power to tax him not for anything he buys or does, but for something he might not buy or do; for sitting in a corner and trying to mind his own business. The concomitant offense is to tax him for ceasing to breathe, damning him both ways. When Al passes away, the government approaches his heirs like a crime boss, to demand a cut of the inheritance, quite often a cut so large that it compels the heirs to sell the business just to pay it. Again this is justified by appeals to the “community,” which is apparently waiting like jackals around the carcass. But again, real communities are unions of persons, and the person transcends the boundaries of his physical existence. He gives of himself to others now; he receives gifts from those who have come before him; he bestows gifts upon those who will come after. To say, then, “You owned this business when you were alive, but now that you are gone, this cut of it reverts to the general pot, and we will graciously allow your heirs to keep the rest, such as it is,” is to truncate his humanity.

Why do we look so kindly upon family businesses that have continued for more than a century? One reason, I believe, is that we intuit the metaphysical relationships between what a human being is, what a human creation is, and what a family is. To say, “We will not allow you to impress your personal being upon this material, making it yours,” is as great an offense to humanity as it is to say, “We will allow you to retain ownership of this creation so long as you live, but when you die, your children will have to fend for themselves.” We sense the rightness of a person’s claim to the child of his mind and his hands, as, in a different sense, to the child of his loins. We pay respect to the love and the loyalty that has bound them.

“You didn’t build that!” cried the former college lecturer. The statement evinces a wholly inadequate understanding of what it means for a human being to build—and to be.

Anthony Esolen is Professor of English at Providence College in Providence Rhode Island, and the author of Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child and Ironies of Faith. He has translated Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata and Dante's The Divine Comedy.

This article originally appeared in Public Discourse: Ethics, Law, and the Common Good, the online journal of the Witherspoon Institute of Princeton, NJ.

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Copyright 2012 the Witherspoon Institute. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

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