Elizabeth Warren misses the point

Argument in viral video ignores crucial details

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.

Hypocrisy of Pos. and Negative Rights Argument over 6 years ago

"I cant think of any Republicans who oppose police, roads, or the military..."

WOW. Except for all Republican Senators including Scott Brown. let me help you out:

Republicans, including Scott Brown, voted AGAINST against an extension of the Federal Medicaid Assistant Percentage (FMAP) in August of 2010. The bill amended the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 to extend FMAP through the first three calendar quarters of 2011.

Sen. Kerry's office at the time commented:

"This vote will save more than 2,400 jobs in Massachusetts schools alone, keep cops and firefighters on the job, strengthen Medicaid for our most vulnerable citizens, and prevent devastating budget cutsMake no mistake, the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office has found this bill will cut the deficit by $1.4 billion over the next decade and it will keep teachers in the classroom, police officers walking the beat and firefighters on duty to respond to that alarm bell. Only in Washington could this be a close vote. [Office of Senator Kerry, Press Release, 8/4/10]

Also, since you mention education, The Boston Globe observed that Massachusetts was eligible for $450 million in federal Medicaid funding and $205 million in educational funding under the provisions of the bill.

Launching into a full-throated defense of the role of the government and the public good without acknowledging where the rubber hits the road on these things is painting an incomplete picture, at best, and at worst extremely misleading to support the purposes of your thesis.

vote is here:


Hypocrisy of Pos. and Negative Rights Argument over 6 years ago


...full-throated defense of LIMITATIONS on the role of government and addressing the public good...

Jim Miller over 6 years ago


It's an old debater's trick to mis-define the opponents arguments then attack the mis-definitions. E. Warren's argument is that businesses and wealthy individuals must pay their fair share of the cost of the "public good" what ever the specific object. That means that the super rich should be paying, for instance, the full rate on all FICA earnings rather than pay only to the cap at $110,000 or whatever the cap may be at any given point in time.

There is no question that the Republicrats are in favor of massive spending for support of the military and the police, since we are headed for a "police state". Proof: just watch the cops use unnecessary and excessive force in Wall Street.

By the way, how much are you paid, directly or indirectly, by the Corporate State of America to espouse their propaganda?

Jim Miller

Anonymous over 6 years ago

You are so dead wrong. Public education NOT a public good. Does no good for a country. Better check out the international statistics on funding for good public education and the state of a country's economy. They are correlated.

Mark Paris over 6 years ago

"I cant think of any Republicans who oppose police, roads, or the military, so Warrens defense of limited government over no government strikes me as a bit superfluous."

No, sir. It is you who have quite missed the point.

The Republicans (and Democrats, to be fair, but with somewhat less vigor) have passed laws which have lowered the tax base to the point of the abrogation of the social compact, implied and explicit, to which corporations must adhere lest a variety of essential public, government-directed programs become a sacrificial lamb at the altar of private profit. To wit, federal tax revenues, which used to (in the 50's) compose about 40 of the total now comprise -- guess here, please, before reading on -- 12! And this is not economically-driven, market forced policy. This is the corporate class buying their laws through complicit, 'finance-dirtied' politicians. This loss of nearly 30 of the tax base has been levied on individuals, and disproportionately as a share of wealth, the middle class and working poor. The loss of corporate taxes, despite an illusory marginal tax rate of 35, which is not effectively paid by any corporation, corresponds to about $700 billion, more than enough to take care of health, education, and infrastructure needs of the society (and incidentally, over a few years, would right the economy for all, even your precious top 1).

One might anticipate a deeper reading of current affairs from an MIT student. But that would just be wishful thinking.

Dix over 6 years ago

The argument that the rich should pay more taxes isn't about paying a higher rate. It's about paying the same real percentage of their income that the rest of us pay. The more you make, the more you are able to take advantage of deductions to reduce the amount you pay taxes on. Making several hundred thousand plus a year and paying taxes on only a small portion while protecting the rest is patently unfair while those making less and having to spend most of it just to live pay taxes on the whole amount minus the one "deduction" everybody gets. Reps and Dems have polarized and refuse to work together for the good of the country, only seeing their party line and then drawing it in the sand for a standoff, and it will bring down this country. Neither side is "right."

Gil Gaudia over 6 years ago

What about the fact, Yost you ignoramous,that the entrepeneur is fed, clothed and housed in a beautiful democracy that makes it possible to "pull oneself up by his or her bootstraps? Made possible because poor laborers pick his vegetables for him while earning less than minimum wage, a system protected for characters like you at the expense of the health and welfare of millions of other who are virtually slave labor. You sicken me with your pathetic defense of parasites while ignoring the system that makes it possible for them to flourish.

Anonymous over 6 years ago

"I cant think of any Republicans who oppose police, roads, or the military", is an example of the problem that Republicans have, thinking. If you can't think then do not write an opinion. It is so typical that facts are dismissed so they can argue their point.

Read any papers from Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan and you will find plenty of Republicans against POLICE, FIREFIGHTER, TEACHERS, NURSES, AND CUTS TO THE VA, EDUCATION. As these Republican Politicians layoff and cut the pay of the Police and simultaneously raising the pay of their staff "to keep the BEST" you might try to engage your brain with some facts and try to think before you write an uninformed comment on the truth coming from Elizabeth Warren. THIS COUNTRY WAS BUILT BY ALL OF US, not just 400 men and their criminals in Congress that take their bribes. That is the apparent limitation of Congress, Representatives that can't think, but they can accept money. And the limitation of an unthinking American public that is willing to follow corrupt representatives.

Anonymous over 6 years ago


How do you imagine that those "slaves" would survive if they did not have wealthier (in most cases due to vastly greater human capital) "parasites" willing to support them in return for the services those relatively unskilled labors can accomplish? No one is forcing them to remain employed picking those vegetables; they are free to leave any time they wish. They do it of their own volition because they know that their skills set affords them no better options. Are suggesting that the teenager serving fries at Burger King should be given the same wages as the engineers who can make ipods affordable for even the poorest in America?

Anonymous over 6 years ago

"There are very serious debates to be had between Republicans and Democrats on where, how, and with whose money our government should operate."

The words serious and Republicans should not be used in the same sentence. They are a pack of clowns.

John over 6 years ago

"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."

Yes, and Warren's positions on/answers to these questions are similar to those provided by Adam Smith in Book V of Wealth of Nations (if you don't believe me, read it). It's a sign of how off-the-rails the Republican Party is today that this could be construed as a leftist perspective.

Greg over 6 years ago

Good article although I don't agree with all of your points. I definitely agree that Warren put up a strawman argument so she could throw out some populist opinions and soundbytes.

It's too bad you used that one sentence about no Republicans being against police, schools, etc etc as it is too easy to twist your intended meaning and make you look wrong. And then that's all most people will focus on in order to refute your point of view and ignore most if not all your other points.

Anyways, I see two problems with Warren's arguments. First, she is using the common "fair share" argument that the rich and corporations aren't paying their "fair share", but nobody ever defines what is a "fair share". Everyone has different opinions on this but most people saying these things only know that saying "fair share" means the wealthy and corporations paying more (although Jim Miller did say he wanted the cap of $110000 on FICA earnings removed, which I agree with). Should the top 20 of Americans (who earn 50 of the total income in America) pay 60 of total income tax revenues? 70? 80? 90? Define a number that you consider fair before making this arguement.

The second flaw I see is that Warren assumes the only way to "pay" for these public goods is with money. I see the addition of jobs as the best form of "payment" a company could possibly make. If increasing corporate tax rates leads to higher unemployment (IF!) then that is a trade-off the government is going to lose from a revenue stand-point.

Anonymous over 6 years ago

You are absolutely correct. Warren tried to disguise her soak-the-rich [ability-to-pay]governing principle in a phony benefits-received rationale. Was it intellectual dishonesty or ignorance? Or was it just focus group work product?

TB over 6 years ago

The comments here are highly instructive, and more than a little frightening.

Keith Yost over 6 years ago

To 1) Your argument seems to rely upon the idea that voting against a bill that is primarily centered around Medicaid is evidence of Scott Brown opposing roads, police, and military. I remain unconvinced. Find a cleaner example, otherwise the response is simple: he didn't like the Medicaid parts more than he liked the non-Medicaid parts.

3) If their benefits from the FICA tax scaled, then sure, remove the cap. But they don't, which is why it is partially in place (cap doesn't apply to the medical part of it, only the SS part). I'm glad I didn't stop reading at "Republicrats" though, the rest of your comment made me LOL.

4) I don't know... I think the evidence for education as a public good is more mixed than you paint it out to be, and certainly on a gut level it FEELS like it's a partial public good. I'm not sure how the stats you cite would make ANY case for education being a public or private good, but I'll bite: education is higher in countries with better economies. I don't think that's evidence of much (I could say replace "education" with "hotdog consumption" and get the same correlation), but if anything it implies that education is a public good, not the other way around.

5) Blah blah blah, corporate this, corporate that, stopped reading. I know "corporate" is a dog whistle word for most of the lefties you hang around, but it's just filler word for folks like me, and you can only make me read so many sentences before I demand you say something.

6) I'd argue with your definition of fairness, but why bother? The top 1 has 18 of the income and pays 24 of the taxes. Are you saying their taxes should be lower? That's some boldsauce.

7) Oh look, a "being paid market wages slavery" argument. Pass.

8) Too incoherent, no references. D-, please retake class for credit.

9) A solid argument that market wages / slavery. Now my decision to pass on 7 pays off.

10) Takes one to know one, I suppose.

11) Adam Smith likes Mill, libertarians like Nozick. Just because Smith is the libertarian standard on some issues doesn't make him the libertarian standard on all issues. If I found a conservative statement from Marx, would it be fair to paint the whole Democratic party as unrepentant communists because they were to his left on that one point? It's moot though because I don't think you're actually correct on Smith. Warren is a full on Rawlsian, which in my book is to the left of Smith.

12) 1

13) Thanks.

Andrew Eiva over 6 years ago

I was really struck by your state-of-the-art article on the Haqqani connection - better than most top of the line "expert" correspondents. So when you knocked out the Elizabeth Warren piece with the same depth of insight, I just want to note that you have a knack for breaking through to the truth that is unusual and a precious asset to the society as a whole. Nourish it. And find allies who will defend you when the attacks come.

Maralago over 6 years ago

Good God, are you actually someone in college? Are you assumed to have any brains? I can't even make it pass this bizarre, insane sentence so forgive me if the rest of your rant actually made any sense: "Factory owners, to use Warrens example, actually do pay for the education of their workers we call these arrangements salaries. Are you actually that freaking stupid that you don't understand what she means by EDUCATION??? You know, like SCHOOLS. Like the ones here in California that 48 of our General Fund taxes pay for. Oh, and by the way, maybe your GOP friends don't oppose roads, police or military, but they sure as hell oppose PAYING FOR THEM. If you don't believe me, please come down to LA, Homeless Veteran Capitol of the World - they aren't paid enough while they're IN the service to even sustain their families (I know because I volunteer w/a family-of-solidiers group and I have to collect FOOD for these people!). Don't get me started on what they won't pay for roads. What's scarier than YOU is Andrew Eiva who thinks you have insight!!! YOU HAVE NO F'ING BRAINS, this is the stupides thing I've read since the demands of Occupy Oakland. Please, please go to another country ruin them.