Where there’s a Will there’s a wrong

Most politically engaged folks have probably seen the Elizabeth Warren video that went viral a few weeks ago. In it, she presents an argument for liberalism that many Americans rarely hear and probably never consider: success is predicated on an underlying social contract. It’s an argument that apparently drove George Will batty.

There’s an interdependency in our society that’s easy to take for granted, and Warren struck a chord by giving it needed attention. “You built a factory out there? Good for you,” she said. “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.” The point isn’t subtle: a strong American future depends on keeping our commitments and rejecting the right’s calls to shred this social contract.

Will concedes Warren’s larger point — “all striving occurs in a social context” — before launching into an over-the-top diatribe, accusing Warren of seeking “a collectivist political agenda.” The Democratic Senate candidate, Will argues, envisions “subordination of the bovine many to a regulatory government.”

Greg Sargent did a fine job responding to this silly — and frankly, cheap — argument last week, but it’s also worth noting E.J. Dionne’s column responding to Will today.

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. As for the regulatory state, our free and fully competent citizens have long endorsed a role for government in protecting consumers from dangerous products, including tainted beef.

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.”

Dionne adds that Will wouldn’t have even bothered with Warren’s vision had it not been so important. In other words, the conservative columnist wouldn’t have felt the need to publish a misleading attack had Warren not struck a nerve with a compelling defense for liberalism in the first place.

It should serve as a reminder to the Senate candidate that she’s saying what needs to be said.