By E.J. Dionne, Jr.
It’s not often that a sound bite from a Democratic candidate gets so under the skin of my distinguished colleague George F. Will that he feels moved to quote it in full and then devote an entire column to refuting it. This is instructive.
The declaration heard ’round the Internet world came from Elizabeth Warren, the consumer champion running for the U.S. Senate in Massachusetts. Warren argued that “there is nobody in this country who got rich on his own,” that thriving entrepreneurs move their goods “on the roads the rest of us paid for” and hire workers “the rest of us paid to educate.” Police and firefighters, also paid for by “the rest of us,” protect the factory owner’s property. As a result, our “underlying social contract” requires this hardworking but fortunate soul to “take a hunk” of his profits “and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.”
In other words, there are no self-made people because we are all part of society. Accomplished people benefit from advantages created by earlier generations (of parents whom we didn’t choose and taxpayers whom we’ve never met) and by the simple fact that they live in a country that provides opportunities that are not available everywhere. The successful thus owe quite a lot to the government and social structure that made their success possible.
Will is a shrewd man and a careful student of political philosophy. I am a fan of his for many reasons, but more on that in a moment. In this case, he demonstrates his debating skills by first accusing Warren of being “a pyromaniac in a field of straw men,” and then by conceding the one and only point that Warren actually made.
“Everyone,” he writes, “knows that all striving occurs in a social context, so all attainments are conditioned by their context.” Indeed. He gives us here a rigorous and concise summary of what she said.
Will then adds: “This does not, however, entail a collectivist political agenda.” In intellectual contests, this is an MVP move. Having accused Warren of setting fire to straw men, Will has just introduced his own straw colossus.
There is absolutely nothing in Warren’s statement that implied a “collectivist political agenda.” Will simply ascribes one to her by quoting a book published 53 years ago, “The Affluent Society,” in which economist John Kenneth Galbraith spoke of how corporate advertising could manipulate consumer preferences.
From this, Will concludes that liberals hold a series of terribly elitist beliefs and that by extension, Warren (who is, conveniently, a Harvard professor) does too. Will’s straw liberal is supposedly committed to “the impossibility, for most people, of self-government”; “subordination of the bovine many to a regulatory government”; and a belief that government “owes minimal deference to people’s preferences.”
Well. On the one hand, this is a tour de force. My colleague has brought out his full rhetorical arsenal to beat back a statement that he grants upfront is so obviously true that it cannot be gainsaid. Will knows danger when he sees it.
What Warren has done is to make a proper case for liberalism, which does not happen often enough. Liberals believe that the wealthy should pay more in taxes than “the rest of us” because the well-off have benefited the most from our social arrangements. This has nothing to do with treating citizens as if they were cows incapable of self-government.
Will, the philosopher, knows whereof Warren speaks because he has advanced arguments of his own that complement hers. In his thoughtful 1983 book “Statecraft as Soulcraft,” Will rightly lamented that America’s sense of community had become “thin gruel” and chided fellow conservatives “caught in the web of their careless anti-government rhetoric.” He is also the author of my favorite aphorism about how Americans admire effective government even when they pretend not to. “Americans talk like Jeffersonians,” Will wrote, “but expect to be governed by Hamiltonians.”
In light of my respect for Will, it seems only appropriate that I close by offering words of admiration—for him, and for Elizabeth Warren. Will doesn’t waste time challenging arguments that don’t matter and he doesn’t erect straw men unless he absolutely has to. That Warren has so inspired Will, our premier conservative polemicist now that William F. Buckley Jr. has passed to his eternal reward, is an enormous tribute to her. And remember: On the core point about the social contract, George Will and Elizabeth Warren are in full, if awkward, agreement.
E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is ejdionne(at)washpost.com.
© 2011, Washington Post Writers Group