Elizabeth Warren’s recent remarks on class warfare, made during a campaign stop in her quest for a Massachusetts U.S. Senate seat, provide a nice microcosm of the broader philosophical views behind much contemporary political debate.
The relevant bit that has her supporters so fired up goes like this:
I hear all this, oh this is class warfare, no! There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. 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.
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.
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 accepted the particular roads and police provided by the particular scheme she supports. We’ve received them, 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.
Still, let’s set such concerns aside and grant to Warren that, if the rich did benefit from the particular services paid for by the rest of us, they have a duty to pay (more) for them. Would that allow us to justify asking the rich to pay more taxes today?
Again, probably not. Just look at the beneficial services Warren draws our attention to.
- Fire departments
She tacks an “and so on” to the list, but there’s something striking about the concrete examples she does give. Namely, they’re all the kinds of things you’d expect even from a much smaller state than the one we have today.
In other words, the need to raise taxes at the present moment (if such a need exists) is precisely not to pay for roads, police, fire departments, and education. We had those—and they were functioning quite nicely—for a good while before the explosion of federal spending under the last two administrations.
If Warren’s claim is that the rich got rich because of certain benefits they received from government and so should pay more to provide those benefits to others, then the overwhelming bulk of government spending is completely outside the scope of her argument.
It’s not obvious that many rich people got to be rich because of Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, or military expenses. (Those who got rich because of subsidies are another matter, but she doesn’t draw that distinction, nor is she calling for an end to government handouts to the wealthy and politically connected.) But those are where we’ve seen so much of the spending increases that now demand, according to Warren and her peers, that all of us pony up more cash to the federal government.
This means that an easy response to Warren is to grant her general philosophical point but then add that what it leads to is not increased taxes but cutting government back to those programs that do make people rich and only then worry about how much of what remains the rich should pay for.
Of 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. Certainly more than “the rest of us” pay. As the Wall Street Journal pointed out back in May, “the highest-earning 10% of the U.S. population paid the largest share among 24 countries examined, even after adjusting for their relatively higher incomes.” The top 20% of American income earners pay over half the federal taxes. Which means that “the next kid who comes along” already is getting his federal benefits from the rich. To Warren and her supporters, I ask, “How much is enough?”
If Warren’s moral case for increasing the tax burden of the rich doesn’t hold up, can she still maintain her claim that this isn’t class warfare? Probably not. By her arguments, the rich are not obligated to pay more than they already are. Nor will their paying more do much of anything to ameliorate America’s fiscal woes. That means it’s rather difficult to see her speech as anything but a ploy to fire up her base by attacking a disfavored minority.
If that’s not class warfare, I don’t know what is.
Update: I just finished a podcast on the subject of this post with Caleb Brown.