The Social Contract: George Will Misses Elizabeth Warren’s Point

I like George Will. That may seem strange coming from a liberal like me, but Will writes an intelligent, thoughtful column. I may disagree with about 85-90% of his material, but, in the current political climate that is driven by anti-intellectualism and rigid ideology, George Will is someone who offers well researched, well argued, intelligent opinions. That’s worthy of respect.

And that makes today’s column by Will very disappointing.

In the last few weeks, a meme by Elizabeth Warren, who’s running for the U.S. Senate seat once held by Ted Kennedy, has been circulating the internet. Warren says:

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 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 the rest of us paid for. . . . 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.

Will takes Warren to task for this assertion, going so far as to imply Warren doesn’t understand the social contract. He describes her as “a pyromaniac in a field of straw men” and makes her the voice of a villainous brand of modern liberalism that seeks to quash the individual in the name of the collective. “The project,” he writes, “is to dilute the concept of individualism, thereby refuting respect for the individual’s zone of sovereignty.”

As though Warren and liberals are some form of Borg, the hive-minded cyborg race from Star Trek: The Next Generation. “Your individuality will added to the collective. Resistance is futile.”

Will has missed the point of Warren’s argument. She does not wish to impugn or destroy individualism or individual accomplishments. In fact, she’s happy for the person who builds a dream and gets rich doing it.

It is Will who actually sets up the straw man, not Warren, when he writes, “The fact that collective choices facilitate [individual] striving does not compel the conclusion that the collectivity (Warren’s ‘the rest of us’) is entitled to take as much as it pleases of the results of that striving.”

Read Warren’s quote again, George. She says, “God bless, keep a big hunk of it.” She does not say we have a right to take whatever we want from individual achievements. She only reminds the individual that he or she has a social obligation to “pay it forward.”

What she is attacking is the conservative idea — popularized since the Reagan administration — that all the money you earn is yours and none of it belongs to the government. Moreover, the government doesn’t know how to spend “your” money effectively.

This mentality has found its logical, absurd conclusion in the Tea Party’s staunch resistance to deficit spending, taxes, and anything else about government they don’t like. “Less government!” they cry, along with not terribly subtle threats to organize and vote out of office any conservative politician who doesn’t fall in line with their rigidly anti-government ideology.

But Warren correctly points out that government serves an important purpose: it provides schools and roads and traffic lights and police and fireman and law. We need these things, and they cost money. It also provides services for the poor, funding for the arts, health agencies, scientific research, disaster relief, and a host of other things that a modern, forward-thinking society requires.

And the money for that has to come from somewhere. It is only fair and logical to ask people who use the services to help pay for them. It is equally fair and logical to ask people to pay according to their ability. And since every member of society uses the services — even if only passively by enjoying the protection of the police and the benefits of scientific breakthroughs, for example — every member of society needs to pay.

The Abraham Lincoln quote repurposed after 9/11 is not “individually we stand.” It’s “united we stand.” As Americans, we are all in this together. And that means we have to share in the collective responsibility of paying for services and accepting regulation to protect the interests of the many, not the few.

This country was founded on certain principles: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights — that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

No one wants to quash the rights of the individual. But each individual is bound by the social contract to help preserve liberty and justice for all.

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2 thoughts on “The Social Contract: George Will Misses Elizabeth Warren’s Point

  1. I will throw this out there as a counter-argument: let us not begin another war of any form, especially here among ourselves on American soil. Before jumping into class warfare, we should first end the two major wars we are fighting overseas, end our shoot first attitude, and re-purpose the money being spent killing and use that money instead for programs at home.

    Fixing the economy is the answer, or should be, but I don’t see how we can do that when we are bleeding billions of dollars overseas in conflicts we can’t win.

    My two-cents.

    • Your point is well taken, MT. I think there’s a couple of things that bear consideration.

      First, the two wars you mention are two of the seven major causes of the recession that occurred in 2008. Two more are the Bush-era tax cuts and the deregulation of the banking sector that enabled the junk-mortgage crisis.

      Second, to fix the economy is going to require spending. It can come from one of three sources — government, business, or consumers. Congressional gridlock in Washington prevents the first, and fear over the state of the economy prevents the other two. At some point, someone’s going to have to take a risk. Consumers are going to have to start buying things, or businesses are going to have to start hiring, or government is going to have pass some form of stimulus. So who’s going to gamble their future to fix the economy?

      Third, class warfare has been with us for hundreds of years. The haves and have-nots have always hated each other, at least in general terms.

      It’s going to be a long road back to wellness — both for the economy and the American psyche, I fear.

      Thanks for the comment!

      –John

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