A few weeks ago on The Public Discourse, Professor Anthony Esolen offered a fresh and creative criticism of Barack Obama’s now infamous “you didn’t build that” comment, challenging the President’s political statement with a largely metaphysical argument. However, my fear is that Professor Esolen’s argument may not appropriate a proper eye towards the political building blocks which support President Obama’s sentiments, blocks which are themselves grounded in what I consider valid metaphysical motivation. Before I begin my response in earnest, however, I believe that it is important in talking about the President’s words to remember that President Obama was claiming that business owners didn’t build the roads and schools which aided the growth of their businesses – not that they didn’t build their own businesses. Nevertheless, I think that Professor Esolen gets to the heart of an important political question in framing his case the way he did, and my response goes along his line of inquiry, rather than the President’s statement itself.
Though his analogies may be somewhat hyperbolic, the sentiments which inform Professor Esolen’s pictures of the government first as racketeers and finally as scavengers reveal an important political (rather than simply metaphysical) sentiment. Were the government some sort of foreign institution, such analogies would be apt. However, I contend that one can describe a logical and consistent politics and metaphysic which inform the sort of political statement which President Obama made: the government is simply the administrative arm of the community, and the community is not a foreign institution to any person. Instead, the community forms persons.
When we speak of a person, it is not the case that we are speaking simply of a body. Instead, we’re speaking of a corporeal element – the body – and a non-corporeal one – the soul (We may leave it to the theologians to hash out the nuances of dualism with regard to this phenomenon). The upshot of all of this is that when we describe a person, what we’re describing includes the sum-total of his physical, emotional, and spiritual experiences. Furthermore, while these experiences help us describe a particular person insofar as what connects them is the person who experiences them, the experiences themselves are often caused or initiated by other people. Let us take the example of Professor Esolen’s restaurant owner, Al. Perhaps Al is a religious man: were it not for the spiritual guidance he receives from his chaplain, Al would really be a different person. Al is partially comprised of the education he received in school, and the formal instruction he received at home. Similarly, the reliable city police force which protects Al and his family, giving him a piece of mind, metaphysically affects Al’s person in a non-trivial way. And so, in talking about a person, we must implicitly or explicitly refer to the people behind the person, who comprise the community or communities to which that person belongs. While in one very real sense we are individuals, we also owe the community, metaphysically, for who we are and what we become. Or as John Donne rightly meditated, “no man is an island, entire of itself; each is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.”
Indeed, this is crucial and ought to inform the vision of personhood which one brings to the political table, so to speak. If even in our very persons we are indebted to the communal framework about us, our decision-making ought to be conducted with an appropriate regard for that very same community. In so doing, we must often surrender what might be described as freedoms, but we do so in exchange for other members of the community surrendering their freedoms as well. Such is the justification for the social contract theory upon which the American system seems to be at least partly predicated – that in exchange for certain treatments and services rendered by our fellow men through the government, we surrender certain natural rights – including property rights. The system of government, at its very core, is simply the institution through which the community chooses perform this exchange of treatments and rights, and the American political system (as is the case of most working systems in the world) is one wherein the government is explicitly given powers of taxation. Then, the sentiment that in exchange for the help one receives in growing a business, one is exactly expected to “give back to the community” is not preposterous once one buys into the Social Contract style political underpinnings.
But the polis is more than simply the government. As Professor Esolen rightly points out, when we work, we provide to the community an example of what it means to be a properly functioning person. The pedagogical beauty of right action is one communal implication of good behavior. However, this ought to harken back to the metaphysical account I provided earlier, for in many cases, we learn the beauty of “fully human work” from those who demonstrated such to us beforehand. If there is a case of a person who does such without this pedagogical influence, surely he is the exception, and not the rule.
Professor Esolen argues, seemingly anticipating this manner of rebuttal, that “risk-takers are the foundation of civil order.” This may very well be the case, but no one person himself is the foundation of the government; he is a beneficiary of the risk-takers before him and of the community which provided a space wherein he could live out his human experience as he saw fit. Even if the generic risk-taker is prior to government in terms of narrative, no particular risk-taker, such as Al, is prior to the government; even the generic risk-taker is not prior to the community. This is why Elizabeth Warren’s – and subsequently President Obama’s – “you didn’t build that” comment is actually apt. Professor Esolen is right, I think, to argue that without people like Al there would be no government as such – and perhaps even no roads and cities. But it also seems to be the case that without the polis, there would be no Al, as such. It seems, then, essential with respect to metaphysics, in talking about the contribution of a person to a society, to frame that discussion in the context of a community rather than a set of atomized individuals. The contribution of the individual does not exist sans the contribution of the community.
If America’s politics are predicated on a type of social contract – which in turn actually does have legitimate metaphysical grounding – then it makes sense for the community to say, “You owned this business when you were alive, but now that you are gone, this cut of it reverts to the general pot” because the business, while owned formally and legally by Al, would not be, as such, without the community. Since the government is merely the political arm of the community, it is proper for the community to demand compensation from Al through taxes – perhaps even inheritance taxes. Al, by himself, didn’t build anything. We all built everything in this City together.
This article was written by ‘Tak’ and he retains all rights to this essay.