The Fabulously Overrated Elizabeth Warren (A Continuing Series)

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on September 24, 2011

Initial post here. Aaron Ross Powell piles on in discussing Warren’s shortcomings as a political philosopher:

Fully exploring the thinking behind Warren’s remarks would demand a book at least. We might point out that most of the rich got that way by creating value for others, meaning they gave back in the process of getting rich. Or we might wonder if her thinking implies that, because the state is responsible in part for the environment in which all of us earned what we have, the state is the actual owner of what we have.

To spare you having to read that book, however, I’m going to instead address just two points I find particularly interesting. First, we can tease out the theory of political obligation Warren advances and see if it holds up to scrutiny. Second, we can ask whether her argument, even if we accept it on its own terms, supports a tax increase on high income earners.

In a 1955 essay, H. L. A. Hart articulated what’s come to be known as the “fair play” principle of political obligation.

When a number of persons conduct any joint enterprise according to rules and thus restrict their liberty, those who have submitted to those restrictions when required have a right to a similar submission from those who have benefited by their submission.

Framed in Warren’s language, “the rest of us” restricted our liberty by paying taxes for the creation of roads, the formation of police forces, the funding of fire departments, and so on. And the rich benefited from our submission to taxes by getting rich (in part) because of the existence of roads, police, and fire departments. Therefore, we have a right to a similar submission from the rich in the form of them paying an increased amount in taxes to fund roads, police, and fire departments, too.

So by her account, this can’t be class warfare because it’s a simple matter of obligation. But is that true? Does the so-called “fair play” account of political obligation work?

Not really. Robert Nozick famously knocked it down in Anarchy, State, and Utopia with a thought experiment about a neighborhood public address system. And A. John Simmons went even further—and did so more persuasively—in his 1979 classic, Moral Principles and Political Obligations.

But the basic response to “fair play” is pretty simple: It seems awfully weird to demand that we repay benefits we never had a choice about accepting in the first place.

Nobody approached the rich before they were rich and said, “Hey, we’re all pitching in to pay for roads and police, which we all think are pretty valuable. If you’d like to benefit from those things like we would, we ask that you pay for them. Are you up for that?” A (pre-)rich person might very well say, “Yes, I’m game.” In that case the principle of fair play would apply. But it would only apply if he had a meaningful choice about the matter. On the other hand, he might say, “Yes, I think we do need roads and police, but I also think they’d be better provided by an alternative cooperative scheme (the market, a different government, a different voluntary group, etc.) to the one you’re offering.”

Simmons calls this the distinction between “receiving” benefits and “accepting” them. The fair play principle creates obligations when benefits are accepted, but not when merely received.

With that in mind, Warren would have a difficult time arguing that any of us genuinely acceptedthe particular roads and police provided by the particular scheme she supports. We’ve receivedthem, yes, and may rather like what we received—but we were never presented with an actual choice.

There may, of course, be plenty of other good reasons to feel obligated to pay our taxes—or to even pay more taxes than our neighbors—but fair play, at least in the form Warren presents it, doesn’t quite get us there.

My apologies for the substantial block quote, but I think that the points Powell makes are certainly worth the excerpt. By all means, read the whole thing, in which Powell goes on to point out that the government functions Warren discusses are the kind that we would minimally expect “even from a much smaller state than the one we have today,” and that this means that even if we accept Warren’s point, we can still demand that government be cut back to those programs that make people rich, “and only then worry about how much of what remains the rich should pay for.” And as Powell notes, “[o]f course we might also point out that, even with the bloated leviathan we have in Washington—one that does far more than provide roads, police, fire departments, and schools (which are, after all, chiefly state and local matters)—the rich still pay for most of it.”

Related to Warren, and speaking of rich people, it seems that Warren understated the amount of money she made while working on the TARP panel. Perhaps it is time that someone tell her that no public servant got elected on his or her own, and that part of the underlying social contract is that you ought to be honest and accurate when putting out campaign disclosure forms.

  • Sweetdaddyfreakout

    This whole line of thinking has always had a critical shortcoming in my book: the state didn’t come into being as a way to create and protect wealth, people invented political states and sovereigns as a way to protect their wealth, well being, and as a means to provide a predictable environment in which to operate in the future.  The Leftist political philosophers engage in this fallacious “chicken/egg” argument and completely reverse which came first.

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