In 2012, U.S. President Barack Obama backed his call for higher taxes on the wealthy with the following piece of reasoning,
“If you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own. If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody invested in roads and bridges… If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.”

Obama was surely right to note that most of us have been fortunate enough to receive help from others. And while those “others” were most likely family members and friends, rather than generally rude and lethargic government officials, I am not suggesting that government has no role in modern society or that taxes should be zero. But, as I will discuss below, Obama’s statement is part of a larger effort by the left to further obscure the link between work and reward, in order to promote an ever-increasing and ultimately destructive level of income “redistribution”.
The connection between work and reward has been widely appreciated for millennia. Homer, in his 8th century BC poem The Odyssey, has Menelaus say that “no Achaean labored hard as Odysseus labored or achieved so much”. Writing twenty-two centuries later Michelangelo observed: “If people knew how hard I had to work to gain my mastery, it would not seem so wonderful at all.” And for the millennials, who have never encountered Homer or Michelangelo during many years of public education, here is the food critic Anthony Bourdain:
“No one understands and appreciates the American Dream of hard work leading to material rewards better than a non-American.”
That age-old connection between work and reward has been progressively (pun intended) eroded. In 2011, Senator Elizabeth Warren said:
“There is nobody in this country who got rich on their own. Nobody. You built a factory … [but 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…”
More recently, Professor Robert Frank of Cornell University published a book entitled Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy. Frank argues:
“Wealthy people overwhelmingly attribute their own success to hard work rather than to factors like luck or being in the right place at the right time. That’s troubling, because a growing body of evidence suggests that seeing ourselves as self-made… leads us to be less generous and public-spirited. It may even make the lucky less likely to support the conditions (such as high-quality public infrastructure and education) that made their own success possible.”
Let us start with two obvious rejoinders. Provision of what we have come to call “public” services does not necessitate government action and government promises do not ensure provision of public services. Before they were crowded out by the modern welfare state, education, road building, old age annuities, fire brigades, and, sometimes, policing, etc., were provided by the private sector or by some kind of public-private partnership.