The economy is a garden, not a pie

President Barack Obama waves as he walks towards Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House on Jan. 21. Reuters photo by Larry Downing.

President Barack Obama waves as he walks towards Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House on Jan. 21. Reuters photo by Larry Downing.

On Tuesday, President Obama said that he wanted to, in his words, “focus less on a checklist of proposals, and focus more on the values at stake in the choices before us.”

As he described his values, one word struck me more than the others. The word, “fair.”

The word was used eight times in the address, most commonly in reference to people being given a “fair shot” or rich people paying their “fair share.”

It occurs to me that I’ve really only heard the words “fair share” used in two situations in my life. The first is as a child when an adult would step in and make sure every kid got his “fair share” of a pizza, toy or some other item that was at risk for selfish hoarding.

The second is when a politician is attempting to convince me that somebody out there isn’t paying their fair share, it is negatively affecting my life, and I should be resentful and seek to take more of what is theirs.

And that is what was at play last night. The president stoking division and resentment among classes of Americans, creating a foil out of the mythically rich fat cat who is responsible for taking what you could have otherwise, and not paying his or her “fair share.”

Okay, sure. Everyone should pay their fair share in a just and civil society. I do agree with that. Then again, I have never met a single person in my entire life who doesn’t agree with that sentiment.

But that rather universal mentality on the structure of a just and healthy society is now being used for the promotion of a specific political philosophy, one of confiscatory taxes and redistribution.

It is unfortunate that the president holds such an inaccurate view on what the economy is.

The economy, contrary to what the left would have you believe, is not a fixed, finite amount of wealth — perhaps to be thought of like that pizza being split among a number of second graders. Your success or failure is not dependent on equal or “fair” distributions of the pizza to all involved parties. The economy is not a finite resource that we have to divvy up between us. You do not get rich by making other people poor.

To think that betrays a fallacious, zero-sum perspective.

In reality, wealth is created, not distributed. Rather than being a static resource we all compete over, it is more akin to a garden.

By that I mean that where something did not exist before, something is grown, adding to what already existed. You plant something and, through care and cultivation, you get something new out of it. What you end up with depends on what you put into it, both in effort as well as intelligent management. Some people will plant a seed and leave it without much thought, and others will cultivate lucrative crops. Actors in the economic garden gain by creating productive value.

In the real world, a person like Steve Jobs created that productive value by creating something that didn’t exist before, something that responded to a market desire that gave consumers something they didn’t even know they wanted until they saw it. And as he got richer, we all got richer.

Think, for instance, about cell phones. Twenty-five years ago, a cell phone was a foot-long brick that weighed as much as a heavy book. Only the most ultra-rich could even dream of affording or using one. Today, even the poorest of countries have widespread wireless, and in many cases smartphone, adoption. Not only are we all more materially wealthy based on the industry (and jobs) created by that particular seed being cultivated and grown, but we are all more abstractly wealthy given the intangible differences in life today.

Send a lower-middle class citizen from today back in time to tell a multi-millionaire from the 1970s that you can, with the touch of a button, access the comprehensive collection of all human knowledge and reach out to communicate with people you have never met around the globe in seconds, and that millionaire would think the time traveler was the Rockefeller or Carnegie of his time.

Point being, it is wrong for anyone, particularly the president of the United States, a man who has enormous control over the everyday lives of people in this country, to view the economy as a finite resource that needs to be parceled up and spread more equally around. That kind of thinking infects everything from tax policy to spending decisions to how his various departments relate to everyday citizens.

Instead, it is time to view the economy for what it is: a garden, not a pie.

Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.