“A Pyromaniac in a Field of Straw Men” George Will on Elizabeth Warren

It’s a bad sign for American punditry that George Will’s latest column slams Elizabeth Warren in such disgraceful fashion. It’s a good sign for American politics, though, that the dean of patrician conservative columnists felt the need to do so. I’m not the first to the party here–Yom Kippur intervened–but I still want to weigh in.

Mr. Will excoriating the below words spoken by Elizabeth Warren at a recent fundraiser:

Here is the offending paragraph, as transcribed by Mr. Will:

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

Warren’s comments immediately went viral, accumulating 653,575 views on YouTube at last count. They add needed moral and political clarity to the 2012 campaign. Mr. Will takes issue with her because she’s drawn some blood, not least because her words are obviously true. She succinctly defines real differences between liberals and conservatives in pondering one of the most toxic long-term developments in American life: widening inequalities in income, wealth, and all that comes with that over the past generation.

Warren’s words also puncture the pretense of Randian libertarian conservatism—a surprising number of whose privileged adherents promise to “go Galt,” only to continually disappoint me by failing to follow through.

Will’s centerpiece rebuttal arrives via a quotation from William Buckley:

Warren is (as William F. Buckley described Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith) a pyromaniac in a field of straw men: She refutes propositions no one asserts. Everyone knows that all striving occurs in a social context, so all attainments are conditioned by their context. This does not, however, entail a collectivist political agenda.

The collectivist agenda is antithetical to America’s premise, which is: Government — including such public goods as roads, schools and police — is instituted to facilitate individual striving, a.k.a. the pursuit of happiness. The fact that collective choices facilitate this 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 the striving.

I think these paragraphs are disgraceful—and ironic given’s Will’s immolation of so many straw men of his own. (To see the philosophical arguments more carefully rebutted, see William Galston’s response to Will here.)

It’s silly to say that liberals believe that “the collectivity … is entitled to take as much as it pleases” in taxing the wealthy. In that same YouTube video, Warren criticizes the Bush tax cuts for their imprudence. She’s talking about increasing marginal tax rates on the affluent by a few percentage points. Even that modest measure is opposed by many Blue State Democratic representatives of wealthy districts (cf. Schumer, Senator Charles).

Will inveighs against the views of various dead or unnamed liberal professors, some who apparently spent time at Harvard:

Many members of the liberal intelligentsia, that herd of independent minds, agree that other Americans comprise a malleable, hence vulnerable, herd whose “false consciousness” is imposed by corporate America. Therefore the herd needs kindly, paternal supervision by a cohort of protective herders. This means subordination of the bovine many to a regulatory government staffed by people drawn from the clever minority not manipulated into false consciousness.

Because such tutelary government must presume the public’s incompetence, it owes minimal deference to people’s preferences. These preferences are not really “theirs,” because the preferences derive from false, meaning imposed, consciousness. This convenient theory licenses the enlightened vanguard, the political class, to exercise maximum discretion in wielding the powers of the regulatory state.

Although GRE study words tumble out (my favorite being “tutelary”), these don’t accumulate to specifically engage what Elizabeth Warren actually said.

I don’t have the required signoffs to respond on behalf of the full liberal herd. Those running near me don’t much worry about false consciousness. We worry more about misleading information on your credit card statement and about what’s concealed in fine print in that inpenetrable stack of documents at your mortgage closing. These are vanilla ice cream market failures one doesn’t have to be especially liberal to support.

Warren’s supposed collectivist agenda mostly includes requirements for greater transparency by lenders, measures to more stringently regulate too-big-to-fail banks. She wants Medicare to bargain more aggressively with drug companies. She supports an ideologically moderate health reforms modeled after the one designed by Mitt Romney and supported by her state’s Republican senator. Her comments in that video clip are standard-issue American liberalism, no Marxian ideology or false-consciousness stuff much in evidence.

Mr. Will goes on to say:

Warren’s emphatic assertion of the unremarkable — that the individual depends on cooperative behaviors by others — misses this point: It is conservatism, not liberalism, that takes society seriously. Liberalism preaches confident social engineering by the regulatory state. Conservatism urges government humility in the face of society’s creative complexity.

Society — hundreds of millions of people making billions of decisions daily — is a marvel of spontaneous order among individuals in voluntary cooperation. Government facilitates this cooperation with roads, schools, police, etc. — and by getting out of its way.

Absent some specific issue such as gay marriage, it’s hard to know what that first paragraph actually means. As for the second, Will is obviously right that “the individual depends on cooperative behaviors by others.” Except that it’s more than that. Affluent people benefit from a myriad of public policies, subsidies, legal arrangements, and social practices that are specifically designed to help them.

Consider Steve Jobs. Every liberal I know admires Mr. Jobs. Every one of them is saddened by Jobs’ untimely passing. Jobs earned his money. Government also played a huge role, not by getting out of the way, either. Government financed the rise of the internet, it provided financial aid and government research grants to thousands of computer scientists. It protected Apple (with imperfect success) against intellectual piracy.

Imposing somewhat higher progressive taxes on Mr. Jobs (whose fortune apparently exceeded $8 billion) and on other wealthy people, is not class warfare or some socialist plot to conscript the rich into forced labor. Such policies reflect the recognition that we all live in the same society. Especially in this time of national challenge, the most affluent, who have benefitted the most from what America has to offer, should do more to help out.

Warren’s plainspoken Midwestern populism poses a real problem for conservatives. The Republican playbook suggests caricaturing her as some snobbish and privileged professor who looks down on ordinary Americans. Yet it is Will, the bow-tied patrician moralist, who delivered Harvard lectures on the theme “Statecraft and soulcraft: What governments do.”

He’s also an odd spokesman for a platform of humble government that avoids social engineering. And underneath the glossy vocabulary, he’s not being all that nice, either.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is the Helen Ross Professor at the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago.