Last week, President Obama took up Elizabeth Warren’s argument of September, and proceeded to make a fool of himself with it. “You didn’t build that,” he said.
Warren’s defense of government had been bad enough. She basically had government take credit — at least partial credit — for everything done in the private sector: “You built a factory out there? . . . 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 typical 99 percenter class warfare element dominates this odd passage, and it might sound good to some ears, right up until the moment they realize that businesses pay taxes for government services, too, including for roads and for America’s ill-run, poorly-performing socialized education system. Indeed, successful folks pay for the bulk of these services. So the pretense that businesses and their owners haven’t paid is nothing other than an outright lie. It paints a hugely inaccurate picture of today’s social-political structure, as well as the classes that result from the political divisions.
Warren didn’t stop there, though. Remonstrating the successful, she yammered, “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.”
Unspoken here was recognition of commonsense, everyday morality. Not marauding someone is what we owe that someone. If we refrained from lining up the capitalists to be shot, and their wealth expropriated, we were only giving them their due. We are obligated not to infringe on the rights of one another. They don’t owe us for our doing what we owe them.
And vice versa.
Of course, some folks want to steal from others, kill others. And so peaceful, good people band together and repel those others. I cannot speak for Ms. Warren, but I know that I work hand in hand with more successful businessmen as well as less successful denizens of the community I inhabit to keep watch, and help the police in their job of beating back the barbarian hordes.
The us vs. them perspective that Warren pushed limns the wrong us and the wrong them. The real us includes peaceful property owners, taxpayers, wanderers, and government functionaries (at least in classical liberal theory) while the them are the criminals, the predators, the parasites. To pretend that we don’t all contribute to our mutual interest in peace is absurd.
Or maybe it isn’t, for there’s a good case to be made that the bulk of government functionaries and politicians are just another, more hoity-toity band of criminals. They are fraudsters, using rhetoric to fleece peaceful people of their money and shackle them, taking away their freedom. Perhaps this dark view of government workers explains the current rhetoric.
Paul Jacob, writing on his Common Sense website, countered Warren’s case like this:
Apparently, according to Ms. Warren, successful businessfolk are takers only. But all along the way, businesses pay for the services they hire. Indeed, they pay for roads, too. Truckers, for instance, pay special weight-rate taxes and licenses for carrying heavy loads across roadways.
Her “argument” no more justifies government taxing truckers or factories more than a similar argument, mutatis mutandis, would allow the kid who mows your lawn to reach into your wallet when you aren’t looking.
And this latter point is worth restating: Performing for someone a contracted service does indeed help that person, but it doesn’t obligate them in perpetuity. The contract has its own terms, and reasonable people stop there.
What Warren was doing is pretending that the services provided by government warrant a never-ending grabbing of wealth. It is the argument of an extortionist. It is like those black-market loan sharks who loan you funds at exorbitant rates, and then expect “interest” payments forever after. It is usury by blackmail.
Amusingly, though Warren was trying to show that government is so important that we must pay more and more and more for it, performatively she gave ammunition to her polar opposites, the de Molinari-style advocates of competitive government. Businesses, she argued, rely on government services. But, unremarked upon by her, businesses also rely on other businesses. To their credit, those other businesses don’t make a habit of intruding into the affairs of their B2B partners, take credit, and demand more payment for “all” the services they have performed. Only criminals and governments do that.
So why not just devolve the businesses of government to competitive enterprise, treat it all as another set of services contracted for on the market? It’s not as absurd as it may sound. Extensive work has been done on the notion. And in its favor is the obvious one: you get what you pay for, and you pay for what you get. None of this after-contract hectoring from folks named Warren. Or Obama.