Elizabeth Warren’s Social Shakedown
If intellectual obscenities could be ranked, it would be hard to outdo Elizabeth Warren’s recent tirade against America’s wealth creators:
There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody.
You built 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 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. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory, and hire someone to protect against this, because of the work the rest of us did.
Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific, or a great idea? God bless. Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.
There is a lot one could say about this quote–notice, for instance, that it totally ignores the benefits made possible by the factory–but I’ll confine myself to this: underlying Warren’s rant is a disastrous view of the proper relationship between the individual and society.
On Warren’s view, society is some collective entity with its own interests and prerogatives, and if you want to be a part of society, you have to surrender some of your interests and prerogatives–above all, some of your freedom. Warren calls it a “social contract.” I call it a “social shakedown.”
The Founding Fathers, in a view they inherited from Locke and which was elaborated by Ayn Rand, had a radically different view of the relationship between the individual and society. They held that society is not some collective entity. It is only a collection of individuals–each with his own aims and interests. The basic problem of politics, they held, was how sovereign individuals could gain the benefits of living in society without surrendering their ability to pursue their own interests.
The solution was to base society on the principle of individual rights: each individual has an inalienable right to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness. You were free to live your life for your own sake and according to your own independent judgment. The government’s job was simple: to make sure no one interfered in that pursuit by violating your rights. Not to build roads or schools or to confiscate what you earn when you build a factory. To protect your freedom.
The result was the first voluntary society in history–a society where people dealt with one another only by mutual consent to mutual advantage. In such a society, if no voluntary cooperation is possible, individuals are free to go their own way.
In a voluntary society there is no such thing as some undefined, unlimited debt to “society.” Those who educate workers, pave roads, or put out fires are fully remunerated for their work by their customers. They have no further claim on anyone’s wealth–to say nothing of the bizarre idea that their services give Elizabeth Warren or Barack Obama a claim on anyone’s wealth. As for the government itself, that’s more complicated. A limited government is indispensible for individuals to flourish and we certainly have a moral obligation to pay for it. But in today’s context, when most of what government does is violate rights, interfere with wealth creators, and tax away their profits, it takes no small amount of chutzpah to talk about the debt they owe to government.
Individuals do create wealth, and morally they have a right to the wealth they create. But to appreciate that, you have to reject Warren’s collectivist social shakedown in favor of the individualist tradition of the Founding Fathers.