According to Merriam-Webster, noblesse oblige can be defined as "the obligation of honorable, generous, and responsible behavior associated with high rank or birth."
Or, in other words, "to whom much is given, much is required" (Luke 12:48).
Personally, I'm not a fan of the term "noblesse oblige." Maybe because it's of French origin, or maybe because it implies that only incredibly wealthy people have disproportionately greater civic obligations to the less-economically-endowed. If you read the Scriptures carefully, you'll note that Christ doesn't let anybody off the hook just because they may not be top income earners. Just about all of us have more stuff than somebody else - whether it's money, status, privilege, education, health, or material goods. To people who have less than us, the things we have more of than them is "much."
So Christ expects more from just about all of us than the French would.
But then, that probably doesn't surprise many people.
At any rate, the term "noblesse oblige" has recently been used in reference to American billionaire Warren Buffett and his bold assertion last week that Congress should raise taxes on fellow citizens in his income bracket. He called it "shared sacrifice."
As could be expected, some liberals have championed Buffett's call, pleased that such a highly-regarded capitalist would support such a political hot-potato in our rhetorically-charged financial climate. At the same time, some conservatives have chided Buffett for pandering to the masses, dropping a surprising admission of weak economic integrity on his part.
To be frank, I don't understand why, if Buffett himself wants to pay more taxes, he doesn't voluntarily step up to the plate. Every year, a smattering of taxpayers already send the United States Treasury unsolicited checks, ostensibly to help pay down our national debt, even though the amounts they send - generally totalling a couple of million dollars annually - don't even begin to put a dent into our outstanding balance. I doubt a few million extra in taxes from Buffett - or even the rest of our top income earners - will, either.
Let's be realistic: What's necessary isn't more taxes, but a wholesale overhaul of the way government runs and what it spends our taxes on. So conservatives are correct in portraying Buffett's suggestion as ignoring the real issue.
But can conservatives sputter, as they usually do in the same breath, that raising taxes on the rich will actually cost our country jobs?
If, for example, the choice was between making the companies these wealthy people run hire more employees, or raising their income taxes, would these wealthy folks hire more employees, or just pay the taxes?
Wouldn't it still be cheaper in the long run for the uber-rich to just pay higher taxes than hire enough workers to lower the unemployment rate? Because they'd need to hire a lot of people, wouldn't they?
How likely is it that the money these wealthy folks would supposedly pay in higher taxes could increase employment to the point where the economy could noticeably improve? Our debt is in the trillions, and growing every day.
We can't tax our way out of this mess. So no matter how you look at it, giving more money to the government will neither lower unemployment, nor pay off much debt. As far as more taxes for the rich is concerned, conservatives appear to have logic on their side.
Speaking of logic, however; after Buffett's statement last week, some of France's wealthiest taxpayers have taken up the gauntlet, calling on their government to raise their taxes. The world's second-richest woman, L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt, joined 15 executives of French companies to petition their Parlement français for the opportunity to pay a "special contribution." Their spin on Buffett's "shared sacrifice," and a way of modeling noblesse oblige, I suppose.
For some Americans, such a grand gesture by the French elite means very little. I'm reminded of one of General Norman Schwarzkopf's funniest quotes, when, upon learning the French refused to join coalition forces in the first Gulf War, he purportedly scoffed, "going to war without the French is like going duck hunting without an accordion!"
Of course, having American conservatives blasting a tax on the rich might have more credibility if Standard and Poor's hadn't lowered our government's debt rating to AA+ from AAA. France still has their AAA rating. But then, the French still seem to have more faith in government's ability to find financial fixes than we do.
If we're going to prove that private industry drives economic prosperity, and not government policy, wouldn't now be a good time to do it? Although Buffett has seized on the wrong approach, he does have one thing right: America's richest are in the best position to make positive economic changes for our nation.
As long as they sit on their cash during tough economic times like these, somebody's going to get inordinately jealous. Either the government, or lower-bracket taxpayers, or the welfare class that pays no taxes at all.
The more affluent a person becomes, the greater the expectation that they contribute more to society. That's not just a social phenomenon, or a socialist manifesto; it's a Biblical mandate.
And the longer we try to pretend that isn't true, the worse things may get for all of us.