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How George Will Misunderstands Both Elizabeth Warren and Liberalism

George Will and I have something in common: We were both trained in the close reading of political texts. Will recently applied his interpretive skills to a statement by Elizabeth Warren, who is running for the Democratic senatorial nomination in Massachusetts. Here is what Warren said: 

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 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 [that] you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along. 

After applying to Warren’s words William F. Buckley’s description of John Kenneth Galbraith—a pyromaniac in a field of straw men, refuting propositions no one asserts—Will moves to the gravamen of his argument: Warren’s vision entails a collectivist political agenda. He tartly and uncharitably described that agenda as follows:

[Its] premise is that individual is a chimera, that any individual’s achievements should be considered entirely derivative from society, so that the achievements need not be treated as belonging to the individual. Society is entitled to socialize—i.e., conscript—whatever portion it considers its share. It may, as an optional act of grace, allow the individual the remainder of what is misleadingly called the individual’s possession.

I have never met Warren. For all I know she may privately embrace the premise Will sketches. But even a cursory inspection of her public words reveals that she is saying nothing of the sort. Rather, she is making a straightforward argument. Without the enabling framework that only government can create, individuals cannot securely enjoy the fruits of their endeavors. Every return on investment, then, is actually a return on two sources of investment, one reflecting individual choice, the other public decisions. Taxation is not theft; nor is it, as the late philosopher Robert Nozick once put it, “on a par with forced labor.” Rather, it reflects the return on the public investment to which nearly everyone contributes. It does not rest on the claim that all resources are collective and that individuals receive what is theirs as an act of grace, but rather on the more modest claim that we all owe something in return for the collective goods without which our individual striving cannot succeed.

And Warren is saying something else as well—that (to quote a thinker with whom Will has more than a passing acquaintance), “Society is indeed a contract … a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.” Warren’s homely phrase, “pay forward,” captures the moral bond that connects this generation with the next. If we don’t adequately provide for their future, we are breaking that bond. A decent political community has the right—indeed the obligation—to honor that bond—if necessary, by compelling individuals who refuse to look beyond their own immediate concerns to contribute their share to the common future.

To be sure, these general arguments don’t come close to settling the question of who should pay how much in taxes. That’s what elections and political contestation are about. But they do establish a sturdy foundation for the idea that individual choice does not create all our obligations and there is nothing in principle objectionable when society presents its bill to each of us. I hope that is one of the straw men that Will (unlike some of his less tutored conservative brethren) never intended to deny.

Not content to accuse Warren of collectivism, he proceeds to accuse her of determinism, or at least to tar her of that sin by guilty association. Warren’s statement, he contends, is a “footnote to modern liberalism’s more comprehensive disparagement of individualism and the reality of individual autonomy. A particular liberalism, partly incubated at Harvard, intimates the impossibility, for most people, of self-government—of the ability to govern oneself.” This premise—public incompetence—is said to warrant a “tutelary government” that owes “minimal deference to people’s preferences.” 

As Will might say, Well. Let us set aside Galbraith, John Rawls, and the bedraggled remnant band of Marxists clinging to the doctrine of false consciousness, none of whose views can be fairly be imputed to Elizabeth Warren. As I understand it, her case for reasonable regulation does not ignore, but rather reflects, people’s preferences. We don’t want to be misled or cheated, but the complexity of modern contractual arrangements can baffle even the most educated among us. So we collectively opt for a framework that protects us against those who have more time and expertise to devise deceptions than we do to ferret them out. No, government shouldn’t make our choices for us, and we shouldn’t ask it to. But it does have a legitimate role in ensuring that the information relevant to those choices is accurate and intelligible.

Again, we can argue about the details. No doubt the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau that Warren conceived and hoped to lead is imperfect in some respects, as is every human creation. If so, experience will expose its flaws, and the political process can improve it. But the claim that it rests on a necessary presupposition of individual incompetence—and worse, the denial of individual autonomy—is unfounded. And so is Will’s root-and-branch dismissal of modern liberalism.

William Galston is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a contributing editor for The New Republic.