Originally composed: October 3, 2011
Referencing small-town Midwesterners at a 2008 San Francisco fundraiser as “people who cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who are not like them”—candidate for President, Barack Obama
Elizabeth Warren has been a good friend of Barack Obama’s since his 2003 fund-raiser for his Senate race at his alma mater, Harvard Law, where she is a professor, and where they first met. It was she who developed the idea, such as it is, of a federal “consumer protection” agency and, per Obama’s recess appointment, briefly held the position of agency czar without the necessity of Congressional approval. Now she is running for Scott Brown’s (ahem…excuse me…Ted Kennedy’s) seat in the U. S. Senate. Should she win, she would be part of the political elite that determines where federal power—the government’s guns—is directed. It is a power she seeks to cling to. She made a statement recently that bears analysis…
Warren, as befits a Harvard Law professor, has some clear ideas on issues of social justice. She recalls, it appears, the tales of life in Hobbes’ state of nature: solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. We all benefit from society. As Warren elaborates: “There is nobody in this country that got rich on their own. Nobody. You build a factory out there—good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on 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 the police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for…” Warren concludes this justifies yet higher taxes on “the rich.”
Economist Russ Roberts, professor at George Mason University in Virginia, had a great response to Ms. Warren in the 9/29 op-ed page of the Wall St. Journal. It bears reading, but I want to say more…
I suspect Ms. Warren took a class in political philosophy at Harvard taught by the revered John Rawls. Her language is reminiscent of that found in Rawls’ highly praised A Theory of Justice, which argued that deviations from egalitarianism—a completely equal sharing of society’s wealth—are justified only to the extent that they better the condition of society’s worst off. He argued that behind a “veil of ignorance,” where people make choices unaware of their actual status in society (well off or poor, talented or handicapped, etc.), this is what people would choose. They would argue to the hypothetically better off much as Warren argued at her campaign event: “Hey better off! You can’t accomplish anything without our help. So we should get everything up to the point where to attempt to give us more would actually make us worse off. Those are our terms and conditions for social cooperation.”
Ms. Warren has taken to this text religiously. She no doubt views as apostasy the response found in Anarchy, State, and Utopia, the 1975 National Book award winning text by Rawls’ fellow Harvard philosopher, the late Robert Nozick. Nozick pointed out that Rawls’ argument is completely symmetrical, and as such cannot justify his conclusion. Based solely on the fact that social cooperation yields a greater product than atomistic efforts, Nozick pointed out, the Better Off could respond with equal (which is to say, little) justification: “Hey worse off! YOU can’t accomplish anything without OUR help. So WE should get everything up to the point where to attempt to give us more would actually make US worse off! Those are OUR terms and conditions for social cooperation!”
Rawls’ argument is not as strong as he thought. It doesn’t do the work he hoped it would. To make an analogy, consider a Thomist offering his Argument from Design. Even assuming that this proves the existence of a creator God, it does not, despite St. Thomas’ belief, prove the existence of the Christian God, complete with Trinity, Eucharist, and papal infallibility. It could equally well prove the existence of Zeus. To prove a Christian God, more is needed. So, too, much more is needed than the mere observation social interaction leads to benefits for all to justify the God of progressive taxation at whose feet Warren worships. Warren’s argument would equally justify a flat tax. But she cannot see it. Too many things get in the way. For one, her antipathy to people who are not like her, people who produce goods and services rather than words and arguments; people rewarded by customers and clients rather than judges and administrators; people who are competent rather than merely clever. Because of this antipathy, Elizabeth Warren clings too firmly to her guns—of which the State she seeks to join controls so many—and her religion. She is a devout believer in the Omnipotent State.