By George Will
WASHINGTON – Elizabeth Warren, Harvard law professor and former Obama administration regulator (for consumer protection), is modern liberalism incarnate. As she seeks the Senate seat Democrats held for 57 years before 2010, when Scott Brown impertinently won it, she clarifies the liberal project, and the stakes of contemporary politics.
The project is to dilute the concept of individualism, thereby refuting respect for the individual’s zone of sovereignty. The regulatory state, liberalism’s instrument, constantly tries to contract that zone – for the individual’s own good, it says. Warren says:
“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 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.”
Warren is (as William F. Buckley described Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith) a pyromaniac in a field of straw men: She refutes propositions no one asserts. Everyone knows that all striving occurs in a social context, so all attainments are conditioned by their context. This does not, however, entail a collectivist political agenda.
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, aka 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.
Warren’s statement is a footnote to modern liberalism’s more comprehensive disparagement of individualism and the reality of individual autonomy. A particular liberalism, partly incubated at Harvard, intimates the impossibility, for most people, of self-government – of the ability to govern one’s self. This liberalism postulates that, in the modern social context, only a special few people can literally make up their own minds.
In “The Affluent Society” (1958), modern liberalism’s symptomatic text, Galbraith, a Harvard economist, baldly asserted that corporations’ marketing powers – basically, advertising – are so potent they can manufacture demands for whatever goods and services they want to supply. Corporations can nullify consumer sovereignty and vitiate the law of supply and demand. Galbraith asserted this while Ford’s marketers were failing to create a demand for Edsels.
Many members of the liberal intelligentsia, that herd of independent minds, agree that other Americans comprise a malleable, hence vulnerable, herd whose “false consciousness” is imposed by corporate America. Therefore the herd needs kindly, paternal supervision by a cohort of protective herders. This means subordination of the bovine many to a regulatory government staffed by persons drawn from the clever minority not manipulated into false consciousness.
Because such tutelary government must presume the public’s incompetence, it owes minimal deference to people’s preferences. These preferences are not really “theirs,” because the preferences derive from false, meaning imposed, consciousness. This convenient theory licenses the enlightened vanguard, the political class, to exercise maximum discretion in wielding the powers of the regulatory state.
Warren’s emphatic assertion of the unremarkable – that the individual depends on cooperative behaviors by others – misses this point: It is conservatism, not liberalism, that takes society seriously. Liberalism preaches confident social engineering by the regulatory state. Conservatism urges government humility in the face of society’s creative complexity.
Society – hundreds of millions of people making billions of decisions daily – is a marvel of spontaneous order among individuals in voluntary cooperation. Government facilitates this cooperation with roads, schools, police, etc. – and by getting out of its way. This is a sensible, dynamic, prosperous society’s “underlying social contract.”
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CORRECTION: In a recent column, I suggested that Rep. Barney Frank’s legislation to reform the Federal Open Market Committee was introduced in August, when in fact it was introduced in April.
George Will’s email address is georgewill@wash post.com. He writes for The Washington Post Writers Group.