There are few concepts I dislike more than “giving back.” I dislike it because underlying it is a false premise and because it undermines the very virtue of giving.
“Giving back” is a term that has bothered me for a while, but a recent report on local news about a woman who volunteered at the children’s hospital really drove it home for me when the reporter described what she was doing as “giving back.”
First, the false premise. If I am “giving back” that means that I have more than I should. When I give a cashier $20 for something that costs $17.70, the cashier will be giving back $2.30 in change. The cashier, momentarily, has more money than (s)he should, which is why the money is given back. The idea of “giving back” to the community thus implies that the one giving back has taken more than he or she should have. This would properly describe a thief making reparations, but it should not describe acts of generosity. One only gives back under the conditions of a zero sum game. The thief thus properly is giving back if he has to give back what he took. For the same reason, politicians can be properly understood to be giving back if any money ever leaves their hands. They are playing a zero sum game, so they necessarily are giving back if they donate money to anyone.
But people participating in the private sector, in the profit-making economy, are playing a positive sum game. That means they are creating wealth and value in the world. Others benefit as much — often more — than do the business owners themselves from their activities. So when a person starts a business in a community, that person is benefiting that community, creating value in that community and creating wealth (through jobs and creating something of value people want) for that community. Having taken nothing, that person has nothing whatsoever to give back.
The absurdity of the concept of “giving back” is demonstrated quite strongly with the woman volunteering at the children’s hospital. For her to give back, she had to have taken something from the children to give back. This woman has taken nothing; she has done nothing but give.
And that leads me to my second point. When you say that woman is “giving back,” you are making her generosity less virtuous. You are saying the recipients deserve her time and money. She owes it to those children to volunteer to try to make their lives better, more fun. Her generosity comes from her not owing anyone anything, but choosing to give anyway.
A business owner who opens a business in a community is thus benefiting that community by his mere presence in that community. He is providing jobs and goods and/or services, creating value and creating wealth. The community is already better off because of what he is doing as a business owner. He has taken from no one to get what he has gotten; what he has gotten is a poor reflection of the value he created, value he necessarily shared in creating through voluntary trades with others. He does not owe the community anything. He provided goods and/or services that community needed; he provided jobs that community needed. The community in turn rewarded him, making him wealthy enough to have enough excess that he is capable, if he wants, to be philanthropic.
If we consider the fact that no market exchange can or will happen unless both people are better off — unless more value is created — it makes sense to understand that extra value each gives the other as a gift as well. The business owner has been giving to the community by simply having a successful business. The community members have been giving to the business owner because he offers them the gifts of increased value in goods and services they want.
So the business owner does not give back when he is generous. He is giving. Anyone who gives to others, whether they are a business owner or a current or former employee, is giving, is being generous, because they have participated in a positive sum game, and from the benefit they have given, give more from the benefit they have received.
And that is why I consider the term “giving back” as a way of saying “giving” not just objectionable, but downright odious.