The outpouring of rage in response to that viral Elizabeth Warren video has been fascinating to track. My favorite argument thus far from conservatives is the widespread claim that Warren asserted total authority over their property, even though she did nothing of the kind.
Case in point: George Will’s column today. He accuses her of a “collectivist agenda,” which is defined this way:
Such an agenda’s premise is that individualism is a chimera, that any individual’s achievements should be considered entirely derivative from society, so the achievements need not be treated as belonging to the individual. Society is entitled to socialize — i.e., conscript — whatever portion it considers its share. It may, as an optional act of political grace, allow the individual the remainder of what is misleadingly called the individual’s possession.
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.
It’s important to understand that behind all this clever and fancy wording is an argument that has nothing whatsoever to do with what Warren actually said. Will translates Warren’s claim into an assertion that the “collectivity” is entitled to “conscript” or “take as much as it pleases,” rendering the property, achievements and even autonomy of individuals meaningless or inoperative simply because they were enabled by that society.
This power to “conscript” that Will is talking about is a reference to “taxation.” Congress’s power to tax flows from the U.S. Constitution, and the members of Congress who determine tax rates are elected by the millions of people who vote in Congressional elections. I’m assuming Will doesn’t question that basic arrangement. Warren was not calling for a change in that basic arrangement; she was merely making an argument about what constitutes a fairer rate of taxation under a system that Will presumably accepts as legitimate.
What Warren actually said celebrated individual achievement, property and autonomy, while making the completely uncontroversial argument that those things are made possible by a functioning society enabled by a healthy social contract. Those things aren’t mutually exclusive in any way. The argument Warren is making is over how much each of us should sacrifice in order to keep that functioning society healthy. We’re running a deficit; someone has to pay to close it. Warren is simply asking the wealthy to sacrifice a bit more in that direction, because if they don’t, a disporprotionately heavy burden for fixing it will fall on the rest of us. This is a fair request, Warren says, because the society they’d be helping to keep afloat partly enabled their wealth in the first place — and will enable others to follow in their footsteps. Warren is making this case to individuals who will decide whether to elect her to the Senate to advance this view. No tyrannical “collectivity” here.
Will doesn’t even attempt to engage her real argument — he doesn’t tell us why the wealthy shouldn’t be called upon to do a bit more to help close a deficit that conservatives insist is a threat to civilization as we know it. In fairness, some conservatives, by contrast, do engage that argument, insisting the rich are already paying a disporportionately large share of the tax burden. I think that argument is deeply flawed, but at least it’s a response to the case Warren is actually making, which has nothing in common with the radical vision and worldview Will and many others on the right are ascribing to her.