Last Updated:September 16 @ 08:22 pm

Sowell: Trashing Achievements

By Thomas Sowell

There was a time, within living memory, when the achievements of others were not only admired but were often taken as an inspiration for imitation of the same qualities that had served these achievers well, even if we were not in the same field of endeavor and were not expecting to achieve on the same scale.

The perseverance of Thomas Edison, as he tried scores of materials before finally trying tungsten as the filament of the light bulb he was inventing; the dedication of Abraham Lincoln as he studied law on his own while struggling to make a living -- these were things young people were taught to admire, even if they had no intention of becoming inventors or lawyers, much less President of the United States.

Somewhere along the way, all that changed. Today, the very concept of achievement is de-emphasized and sometimes attacked. Following in the footsteps of Barack Obama, Professor Elizabeth Warren of Harvard has made the downgrading of high achievers the centerpiece of her election campaign against Senator Scott Brown.

To cheering audiences, Professor Warren says, "there is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. You build a factory out there, good for you, but I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers that the rest of us paid to educate."

Do the people who cheer this kind of talk bother to stop and think through what she is saying? Or is heady rhetoric enough for them?

People who run businesses are benefitting from things paid for by others? Since when are people in business, or high-income earners in general, exempt from paying taxes like everybody else?

At a time when a small fraction of high-income taxpayers pay the vast majority of all the taxes collected, it is sheer chutzpah to depict high-income earners as somehow being subsidized by "the rest of us," whether in paying for the building of roads or the educating of the young.

Since everybody else uses the roads and the schools, why should high achievers be expected to feel like free loaders who owe still more to the government, because schools and roads are among the things that facilitate their work? According to Elizabeth Warren, because it is part of an "underlying social contract."

Conjuring up some mythical agreement that nobody saw, much less signed, is an old ploy on the left -- one that goes back at least a century, when Herbert Croly, the first editor of The New Republic magazine, wrote a book titled "The Promise of American Life."

Whatever policy Herbert Croly happened to favor was magically transformed by rhetoric into a "promise" that American society was supposed to have made -- and, implicitly, that American taxpayers should be forced to pay for. This pious hokum was so successful politically that all sorts of "social contracts" began to appear magically in the rhetoric of the left.

If talking in this mystical way is enough to get you control of billions of dollars of the taxpayers' hard-earned money, why not?

Certainly someone who claimed to be part Indian, as Elizabeth Warren did when applying for academic appointments in an affirmative action environment, is unlikely to be squeamish about using imaginative words during a political election campaign.

Sadly, this kind of cute use of words is not confined to one political candidate or to this election year. The very concept of achievement is a threat to the vision of the left, and has long been attacked by those on the left.

People who succeed -- whether in business or anywhere else -- are often said to be "privileged," even if they started out poor and worked their way up the hard way.

Outcome differences are called "class" differences. Thus when two white women, who came from families in very similar social and economic circumstances, made different decisions and got different results, this was the basis for a front-page story titled "Two Classes, Divided by 'I Do'" in the July 15th issue of the N.Y Times. Personal responsibility, whether for achievement or failure, is a threat to the whole vision of the left, and a threat the left goes all-out to combat, using rhetoric uninhibited by reality.


Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305. His website is


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  1. pypypypyComment by pypypypy
    July 19, 2012 @ 9:10 am

    Mr Sewell, what hasnt Obama trashed??? To see the audience cheer and clapped at those insulting remarks is just as insulting and disgusting. I hate to say this, for someone to cheer and clap, you either have to be ignorant or drank so much Kool-Aid that you dont know what is going on. They and Obama ought to be ashame of themselves!

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    • cgretiredComment by cgretired
      July 19, 2012 @ 10:56 am

      In all honesty, I just cannot imagine that these people were cheering his remarks. They can’t really be all that stupid, can they? Well, perhaps I spoke to soon… they did, after all, vote for the jerk.

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    • paanoflyComment by paanofly
      July 19, 2012 @ 4:15 pm

      Not to pick nits, but the mans name is SOWELL, not Sewell. In addition, he is Doctor Sowell; and in my opinion one of the top five or six economists our country has produced in the 20th century. The top spot, also in my opinion, belongs to Dr. Milton Friedman, may God rest his soul.

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    • pypypypyComment by pypypypy
      July 19, 2012 @ 6:25 pm

      paanofly, you are nit picking.

      My eye sight isnt very good at times and mistakes happens.No one is perfect and I am certainly not!

      I am by no means or in anyway trying to disrespect Mr/Dr Sowell. Lots of hugs to you

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  2. inluminatuoComment by inluminatuo
    July 19, 2012 @ 9:18 am

    What is with Obama’s fixation with roads? His road to hell is indeed paved with good intentions. Hitler was the world’s best government road builder, but what good are roads if they are only used to invade your neighbor’s property and steal his wealth for the betterment of the fatherland. The Soviets as well were great road builders but also killed the spirit of individual worth for the betterment of the government collective.

    Obama just does not get it. When it is equality that government obsesses with, we all end up in an equal world of collective mediocrity. Government’s job is not to enforce equality but to encourage excellence so that the collective succeeds in the land of excellent performance not the land of enabling mediocrity. Government’s job is to get out of the way of the individuals who are on a path of success, on the path of exploring new frontiers which is what America was and is all about. Obama would never have us “Boldly go where no man has gone before”,,,,,just hide within the safety of failed socialist collectives where the diminutive of spirit hide from the challenges of life. He and his ideology is a recipe for failure so why is ANYONE surprised that all we got was failure. Obama himself hides from his responsibility of leadership in the very secure zone of campaigning which he knows in his heart that this is all he is qualified to do. Where’s the leadership,,,,where’s the beef? SO just when does the job description of President become that of a professional Campaign fund raiser?

    Drizzle, Drazzle, Drussel, Drone, time for this one to go home.

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    • genesalComment by genesal
      July 19, 2012 @ 9:35 am

      Why do certain people put so much credence in Obama’s opinion of how the American worker built this beautiful country. They believe a man that has never had a paying ‘job’ in his life.

      This man has had 100 fund raisers, more than his last 3 predecessors combined. Is it his fault or is it our (Americans) fault?

      Somebody should sit O’ down and force him to watch the documentaries (3 series) Connections and he would learn that Americans built America with very hard work. If they had help it wasn’t from the Government, it was from God!

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    • pypypypyComment by pypypypy
      July 19, 2012 @ 9:36 am


      I agree with what you say with the exception of him hiding from his failures. He doesnt hide, he simply lies and blames someone or something for them

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    • nickster99Comment by nickster99
      July 19, 2012 @ 10:07 am

      All he can do is lie! And I think he knows that. He has nothing, nothing at all to show for. Look at the people that are cheering him on, it is very easy to tell who the people are in the crowds! He just hopes there are enough fools and lemmings left out there to vote for him. But we have to be careful of the dead people, the live and dead dogs that may vote!

      He has to blame others and anyone he can and it will get worse. Its all part of his marxist philosophy!

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    • dblakeComment by dblake
      July 19, 2012 @ 3:25 pm

      “Obama just does not get it.”

      I don’t believe that for a minute. I have a darker viewpoint on the topic. I firmly believe BHO’s intention is to actively destroy this nation. This was his plan from the beginning and there was already enough corruption in our government that a man was allowed to run for POTUS that still hasn’t proven he is eligible for the position.

      From his own writings we know he hates America. His disdain for our Constitution is undeniable. Everything he has “accomplished” is in direct conflict with our Constitution, the legal foundation of this nation. Every branch of our Federal Government is openly committing treason on a regular basis with seeming immunity because they won’t prosecute each other!

      Do we really think removing BHO from office in November will save this nation? I am not so deluded. He is only a terrible symptom of how much of our heritage we have already given away. We need to acknowledge the sin we have allowed to permeate American society to the point of actually creating laws protecting perversion and sin and persecuting righteousness instead of lawlessness.

      God, who our founding fathers acknowledged as the giver of these self-evident truths including the unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness, is the only one who will be able to put things right in America. Everyone needs to vote in November but we need to be praying for America until then!

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    • cjs2012Comment by cjs2012
      July 22, 2012 @ 10:34 am

      His fascination with roads, IMO: create more debt, which facilitates his goal of irretrievably sinking our economy; in doing so he rewards the unions with shovel ready jobs; his claim is more jobs will result from improved infrastructure. A lie. Like putting the horse before the cart. We have less jobs as a result of less manufacturing/production, due to higher energy costs and onerous tax and regulatory burdens, both certain and uncertain.
      With appropriate energy policy, tax policy, and repeal of Obamacare, ending the 99 wks of unemployment followed by fraudulent claims of SS disability, jobs would come back. Then corporate taxes and income taxes would support infrastructure requirements, as it is meant to be.

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  3. ScottLComment by ScottL
    July 19, 2012 @ 9:44 am

    This particular statement needs to be dissected a bit:

    “At a time when a small fraction of high-income taxpayers pay the vast majority of all the taxes collected, it is sheer chutzpah to depict high-income earners as somehow being subsidized by “the rest of us,” whether in paying for the building of roads or the educating of the young.”

    It is very common for conservative pundits to refer to the small number of taxpayers paying the lion’s share of taxes. What they almost never tell you is that these people also have the vast majority of wealth and income in this country. We like to think of our country as being relatively equal, with a great record of upward mobility. It’s largely a myth, which even Rick Santorum acknowledged at one point during the primary. The rich pay most of the taxes because they have most of the wealth. When you see figures like “the top 3% of tax payers pay 70% of the taxes” that’s because they make most of the money. If we immediately taxed the bottom half of wage earners 10% (that is, the ones currently not paying federal income tax), we would barely put a dent in our debt, because most of them are only making between $20,000 – $40,000. That said, I don’t agree with the talking point that the rich aren’t paying their “fair share”. They are paying their fair share and then some – but unfortunately, we need them to pay more, because they’re the ones with the money. We can “expand the base” as well, but you can’t draw water from a dry well.

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    • FlaJimComment by FlaJim
      July 19, 2012 @ 12:13 pm

      If more people were paying taxes, you’d see a lot more discontent with how the government confiscates our money and spends it on inane projects or simply redistributes it to cronies and special interests like minority groups.

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    • thecitizenComment by thecitizen
      July 19, 2012 @ 1:47 pm

      “If we immediately taxed the bottom half of wage earners 10% (that is, the ones currently not paying federal income tax), we would barely put a dent in our debt …”

      Put a dent in our debt? Hah! If we taxed the entire USA GDP for a year it would put a dent in, but not pay off, our debt. Add in China’s entire GDP and we’d have a little change back.

      How did we get in such a mess? Years and years of tax and spend, kick the can down the road Democrats and RINO’s in general but specifically and overwhelmingly, B-H-O, with his executive fiat regulations, executive order violations of the Rule of Law (both of which create gross uncertainties throughout the entire business/revenue producing community), the fomenting of class and race warfare … just to get started.

      Taxing the super rich even more will only exacerbate the problem by taking money out of a revenue (tax) producing enterprise.

      Under the Loose Cannon Campaigner in Chief – everything – is in total disarray and nearing chaos. We urgently need stability and predictability in leadership and a return to the Constitutional Rule of Law.

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    • JDZComment by JDZ
      July 19, 2012 @ 3:29 pm

      The typical liberal answer to the government’s financial problems is always…raise taxes. You never hear them supporting real cuts in the spending of government which is the crux of our fiscal problem. The federal government has never been reorganized, consolidated, and streamlined into a much smaller and efficient size. Never. It has grown into a huge complex behemoth with duplication everywhere and continues wasting taxpayer money everywhere. If it were a private company, it would have gone bankrupt 40 years ago.

      Because it has been allowed to automatically increase budgets each year for most of the biggest programs like Medicare, Medicaid, and SS, it never has to consider meeting any rigid budget commitments. The big entitlement programs get a 7.5% automatic increase in budget each year without having to justify the need for an increase. Government workers who manage budgets at the department level know that they have to spend every dollar in their budget each year to justify the budget for the next year.

      The point is this, it doesn’t matter how high we raise tax revenue, there is not enough potential tax revenue that would come in to make much of a dent in the growing national debt and the annual deficit spending of Obama of 1.2 Trillion dollars a year which is how much he adds to the national debt each year. The problem is almost untenable at this point and getting worse by the day under the Obama administration.

      What has to eventually happen is a huge downsizing and restructuring of the federal government which no politician currently running for office really wants to sponsor, especially with the economy in such a mess and unemployment so high. You saw how one of the fiscally smartest members of Congress (Paul Ryan) was demonized for proposing reasonable budget cuts coupled with a restructuring of Medicare in order to save the program was treated.

      This whole class warfare tax argument is a distraction to avoid dealing directly with the major problems on the table, as Obama is hoping he can skate by it until after the election.

      Not going to work.

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    • CharieComment by Charie
      July 20, 2012 @ 12:00 am

      What we need is government to stop spending… eating our substance, as it were.

      This administration has wasted and thrown more money at cronies in the green industry (whose main products seem to be bankruptcies)than used to be used to run the whole government. The more money you give Congress and the President to play with the more they will spend and waste.

      Think about that before you ask for more money for them.

      Every time I think about the millions given to Fiskars and then they build their new Karma in Finland my head explodes just one more time. Then I hear that it’s a $100,000 car and there it goes again. Not even an affordable car for the middle class in this country!

      I should give more money to Obama to play with? I think not! He doesn’t play well with taxpayer money.

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    • cjs2012Comment by cjs2012
      July 20, 2012 @ 8:48 am

      Not calling you stupid, but… “It’s the spending, stupid.”
      Spending without accountability, fraudulently, wastefully, rewarding friends, creating permanent voting blocks of dependents, stupidly ignoring decades of actuarial evidence pointing to the un-sustainability of entitlements.

      Wait. That’s not stupid if you’re the party hell bent on total control of the people. If we have indeed reached the tipping point, future elections may be unnecessary.

      Politicians do what they do because they have a blank check – the power to tax. All made possible by taxpayer apathy. We forgot history in times of prosperity.

      CJ Roberts got it right. We have the government we deserve. Only our votes can change this.

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    • KMcCComment by KMcC
      July 20, 2012 @ 10:12 am

      Scotti, The way Obama and his Democratic Congress have addded to debet is Criminal! The IRS states that if we were to TAX the top 1% or even the top 3% at a rate of 130% of their income per/Year… NOT a Typo, the government spending at its current rate would still be SHORT almost $1 trillion/ per/ year. THAT is STUPID how can you, who can read and write, ever believe this is morally correct or fiscally correct????

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  4. cjs2012Comment by cjs2012
    July 19, 2012 @ 9:51 am

    No road was ever constructed to move goods that wasn’t paid for by a job creator. Without a job creator, there are no corporate taxes, nor income taxes. Too many voters appear to exhibit a total lack of comprehension, a complete disconnect. Easy enough to do so today, since government simply borrows or prints money it doesn’t have. Sadly, I confess to believing, this Republic has already been buried alive, and we few are gasping our last breath, no mourners to hear.

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    • rustypatComment by rustypat
      July 19, 2012 @ 11:06 am

      “Without a job creator, there are no corporate taxes, nor income taxes.”

      And no funding for a government in the first place. Talk about biting the hand that feeds you. Government is subsidized by commerce and anything the government then subsidies is “trickle down” subsidy.

      Fools eat the hen that lays the golden eggs … and tell everyone how good the chicken tastes.

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    • cjs2012Comment by cjs2012
      July 22, 2012 @ 11:13 am

      The more I think about the dubious future of our economy, and therefore our country, about the lack of choice in our currently manipulated 2-party system, the seeming impotence in the act of voting (while holding one’s nose), or voting with my personal spending choices… the more I think of the ultimate citizen protest: starving the government.

      I am not a fan of group-think or mob mentality, hence my disgust with today’s unions (which have, IMO, out-lived their usefulness except as tools of Democrats).

      But what would happen if no one went to work and all investments were converted to cash and, along with savings, withdrawn from deposit? Can we starve government beyond their capability to borrow or print worthless currency?

      Banks would surely collapse. Would all jobs would go overseas? Product may be cheaper to produce over-seas, but “slave labor” is not conducive to a purchasing base. Would government spending be slashed, would accountability take front center stage?

      Most of us could go quite awhile without need to make a purchase of goods aside from absolute necessity. If resources were pooled, we could sustain a work “vacation” from feeding the powers that be. Blue flu on a national private sector scale. I love the irony.

      Crazy thoughts? Good responsible people, patriots and taxpayers, are being painted into a corner. We do have considerable power yet, though it seems increasingly our control of the government is being thoroughly decimated, the tables un-Constitutionally turned. The government, Wall St, Feds should tremble. The result could be devastating. (Yes, I have some idea what the reaction would be; the response would simply and immediately force action, disclosure of the plans they barely conceal now.).

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  5. docmccarthyComment by docmccarthy
    July 19, 2012 @ 10:10 am

    Weren’t these, first, the words of BHO? I got the sense from the week’s dung heap of marxist propaganda that BHO spoke these words. Warren was just parrotting the commie-in-chief’s party line? I would take Warren’s speech as plagerism, pure and simple. She is a complete academic fraud. An abuser of the first degree. Yet, she still maintains a competitive opponent? What is with this country? That’s where the real problem lies. Her unscrupulous behavior is accepted.

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    • rustypatComment by rustypat
      July 19, 2012 @ 11:13 am

      That’s the scary part … we have bred 1/2 (or more) a country of people who believe rhetoric.

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    • Cape ConservativeComment by Cape Conservative
      July 19, 2012 @ 8:02 pm

      Speaking to MA voters, Elizabeth Warren uttered the ‘you didn’t do it alone’ nonsense – right down to driving down the roads others paid for – long before the president did.

      Two progressives – no difference – both LIE and expect the great unwashed masses to believe them – even as their noses grow longer with each untruth!

      Come November, I believe they will hear from hard-working tax-paying Americans that we do not buy their snake oil presentations!

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  6. middlegroundComment by middleground
    July 19, 2012 @ 11:27 am

    Reply to Comment by rustypat

    You have just described what Vance Packard the author of Hidden Persuaders described as the perfect consumer — a person who will buy anything that is emotionally presented, but in his second book on leadership he stated all the things that companies don’t want in their leadership.

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  7. nickster99Comment by nickster99
    July 19, 2012 @ 11:28 am

    A capitalist society is the only real way to go. The ideas of Karl Marx die very slowly but there are people like obummer and the likes of him that will never let it go. Socialism, communism and the rest of those totalitarian forms of government have never worked! Ever! But they just dont get it! China is no longer a real communist country. They are slowly changing to a capitalist society just give it time. They have realized you cannot keep a billion people in chains.

    America, which will endure after we make it through these trying times. Will be back. There will always be rich people and poor people and the rest of us somewhere in between but it is the only place I want to be! With the independent voters and the rest of us REAL AMERICANS we will win in November! I have no doubt.

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    • thecitizenComment by thecitizen
      July 20, 2012 @ 11:37 pm

      PLEASE REMEMBER: It would be a great start to vanquish BO from the WH but … isn’t nearly enough. We need to purge lapdog Dems (FL Sen Nelson would be a good start) and RINOs (McCain, for example) from the Senate so we have a strong majority there, and, keep the keep the strong majority in the House.

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  8. librabobComment by librabob
    July 19, 2012 @ 11:59 am

    I shudder to think what damage Professor Elizabeth Warren has done to the minds of our young people attending Harvard University. She spews out Marxist propaganda like Rev. Al Sharpton spews out racial hatred. Both are opportunistic phonies and neither ever had an original thought in their lives. Why she stills holds a professorship at Harvard, after being caught lying about her ethnicity, is beyond comprehension. And now she wants to be elected to the U.S. Senate? Give me a break!

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    • Cape ConservativeComment by Cape Conservative
      July 19, 2012 @ 8:05 pm

      I fault Harvard as much as the lying professor!

      The university’s reputation is being trashed and until they come clean about hiring this phony indian maiden, I hope they see a LARGE decline in student population. If I were a member of the faculty, I would insist the university clear its name!

      It was quite ironic that the professor stated she submitted her indian history so she could meet others ‘like her’ – however, two members of the Cherokee Tribe came to Boston to see her recently and the good prof couldn’t find time to fit them in her busy schedule. The nose grows longer and longer and longer…

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  9. americanjoeComment by americanjoe
    July 19, 2012 @ 2:49 pm

    It’s impossible to argue with a Democrat because they are so brainwashed by the media, Hollywood and education system. Until the Republicans figure out how to get facts to these people, it’s a lost cause. If you have one person telling you the sky is blue and 5 telling you it’s green, you naturally think “Maybe they’re right and I’m just colorblind?” You think its bad now; wait until Obama starts controlling the internet. Then all the “facts” (According to the Democrats.) will be easier for us Republicans and Independents to understand. Obama has to go!

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  10. joelinpdxComment by joelinpdx
    July 19, 2012 @ 3:15 pm

    It appears that this “government did it for you” mantra is becoming the lead talking point for the Democlowns. Here is a clip from Adam Corolla’s radio show in which he blasts Obozo for saying the same thing. Corolla asks when it became wrong to have succeeded.

    (NSFW Warning: This clip contains the ‘F’ word and the ‘S’ word and many uses of the ‘A’ term.)

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  11. fredlu33Comment by fredlu33
    July 20, 2012 @ 1:34 pm

    Yes there was a time, really in the not so distant past!

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