The Tech - Online EditionMIT's oldest and largest
newspaper & the first
newspaper published
on the web
Boston Weather: 41.0°F | Fair
Article Tools

In August, Elizabeth Warren, the presumptive Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate seat currently held by Scott Brown, had this to say:

“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.”

I can’t think of any Republicans who oppose police, roads, or the military, so Warren’s defense of limited government over no government strikes me as a bit superfluous. Her speech is standard fare for a political candidate: set up a straw man, and then tear into them. Under normal circumstances, Warren’s remarks would simply be ignored — there isn’t much to read into a politician speaking before a crowd of die-hard supporters.

However, in the past few days, the Netroots left has leapt upon Warren’s words as a grandiloquent defense of progressive policies. So let’s take Warren at the face-value that her ideological compatriots feel she deserves.

Warren’s argument is a simple one, the sort you might hear in any introductory political theory class. And like most simple arguments, it ignores important details. Few political theorists anywhere along the political spectrum would deny the government’s role as a provider of public goods. The debate is not, as Warren claims, about whether the social contract should include things like roads, firefighters, or soldiers. The fight over our social contract is instead focused on three issues: a debate over what goods qualify as public goods, a debate over how to best provide public goods, and finally whether the government should charge for its goods based on benefits received or ability to pay.

Take education, for example. It is not entirely clear whether education qualifies as a public good. Factory owners, to use Warren’s example, actually do pay for the education of their workers — we call these arrangements “salaries.” To the extent that the benefits of education are captured in the wages offered to the educated, then education isn’t a public good, and the justification for education subsidies is diminished.

But let’s say we’ve decided (as the expert consensus is) that education is at least a partial public good. We still have the question of how to best provide it. Warren’s clan believes the best way to provide education is through direct public intervention: the government will run the schools and allocate resources and so on. But Republicans, having seen the high expense and low performance of this arrangement over the past 60 years, put forward a different idea. Instead of direct public control of the schools, why not subsidize education through school vouchers, and let the free market and self-interest work to create the most productive educational system? Just because Republicans believe in market-oriented approaches to public goods problems doesn’t mean they are anarcho-capitalists who dispute the idea of schools themselves.

But let’s say that we agree that education is a public good and that the most efficient way to provide it is for the government to run its own school system. How do we want to pay for this school system?

Warren seems to be arguing for what is commonly called a “benefits-received” principle. The factory owners, having reaped the benefits of the schools, should be the ones to pay the lion’s share of the schools’ cost. But this is not a progressive position in the slightest — it’s Republicans, not Democrats, who argue for the benefits-received principle.

Consider that one percent of this country pays nearly a quarter of its federal taxes (and more than a third of its income taxes). The most highly productive members of our society might avail themselves of more or less of the nation’s public goods than the average man, but we can rightly assume that they are not filling a quarter of our classroom seats, driving a quarter of the cars that travel on our roads, being protected by our military at a rate 25 times the normal, and we can be quite certain that they are not availing themselves of a quarter of our unemployment insurance, a quarter of our welfare systems. They receive much less and, if Warren’s argument for fairness were followed, their taxes should be lowered, not raised.

The policies that Warren supports are in no way related to the benefits-received social contract that Warren outlined. The “progressive” position is that the factory owner should pay more than his fellow man for no greater reason than the factory owner has a greater ability to pay.

At the heart of every modern argument about how the rich should pay more is a belief that the government is a superior moral agent to the individual. An individual cannot be trusted to do the ethical thing and give his money to charity (if that is indeed the ethical thing to do), and instead, the government must force him to do so at the point of a gun.

Perhaps this is the correct view. Maybe when acting collectively human beings are more ethical creatures than they are when acting individually. It’s not a view that I hold (in my personal experience, the average man acts more ethically than the average government), but it’s a view that I understand, and don’t think I have the empirical evidence to conclusively dispute it. However, if we are to make that conjecture, then we might as well follow it to its logical conclusions. Who is to say that individuals are capable of making the right moral decisions when it comes to abortion? Or drugs? Or religious beliefs? Warren’s claim to sovereignty over the factory owner’s labor rests on the same philosophical foundation as, say, Rick Santorum’s claim to sovereignty over the factory owner’s uterus. These are not progressive arguments; they are authoritarian ones, formulated in opposition to freedom, not in support of it.

There are very serious debates to be had between Republicans and Democrats on where, how, and with whose money our government should operate. But let us be clear: Warren, in her remarks, has completely ignored that debate. What she has put forward is not the grand defense of progressive ideals, but instead a straw man argument whose relevance is limited to either Somalia or the first few weeks of 17.01.