Secular Sermon Quicklink: Getting Rich Is a Group Effort

Elizabeth Warren, via Sociological Images and several FB friends’ status updates:

I hear all this, you know, “Well, this is class warfare, this is…”, whatever. 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.

Taxpayer-funded infrastructure and services are essential to the social stability that allows entrepreneurship to flourish. Try doing it without a robust law and order system which protects one’s individual rights under contract! Paying it back/paying it forward via the mechanism of taxation is not theft – it’s a fair return on the public’s investment.

Categories: culture wars, economics, ethics & philosophy, social justice

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5 replies

  1. Yes! Exactly! This is the part of the whole “social contract” equation that so many Glibertarians miss when they say “they gain nothing from paying taxes”. What they gain is a whole heap of things they’re so used to living with (a stable society; a society where “rule of law” is primary, a society where there are things like police forces, and emergency services; a society where owning a business doesn’t mean you have to own your own private army; a society where you can sign a contract with another person, and then have legal recourse to the courts if they renege, or change their minds; even something as absolutely fundamental to their particular world-view as an agreed-upon means of exchange with an agreed-upon value) that they don’t even notice them. They’re like the oxygen in the air – we’re so used to them being there that we don’t notice them except when they’re absent.
    But if they’re not there – if the society is in the process of degrading (I’m tempted to use the USA as an example here), or pulling itself back together out of a chaotic state (eg former Yugoslavia, the former Soviet Union, Somalia); if the rule of law is breaking down (no systems of arbitration other than “I have the bigger stick/gun/tank/gang therefore I am Right”); if owning a business means you have to be prepared to physically fight off both competitors and wreckers (for example, Mafia “protection” situations); if there isn’t a police force, or a fire brigade to deal with theft or arson (Mafia “protection” again); if contract law breaks down (the law of the bigger stick once again); or if the means of exchange isn’t readily ascertainable (barter societies) then it becomes not so much impossible, but certainly much more difficult to create and/or maintain wealth.
    The thing about “class warfare”, as the USAlien rich use the term, is that no matter how nasty it gets, it isn’t a patch on what not only can happen, but will happen when genuine social warfare breaks out. Being asked to pay more in taxes is a lot less lethal than being loaded into a tumbril and led to the guillotine, or stood up against a wall and shot, or having one’s head sliced off with a machete, or any of the myriad other ways various proletarian and bourgeois groups have found for dealing with a recalcitrant aristocracy over the centuries. The intelligent aristocrats (and I use “aristocrats” here as a shorthand for “the super-rich” – the ones who don’t have to work to make a living, they just have to sit back and watch the interest roll in) are the ones who see that money is less painful to lose than life.

  2. I totally agree with this, but I’d just like to add: not all of the things which make possible the building of a factory in this example are tax-payer-funded, though many are. There’s the whole getting born and raised thing, which is often very heavily reliant upon women’s labour, and is often not even recognised as labour, let alone as infrastructure. These are the reasons that I’m occasionally suspicious of ‘social contract’ talk, because it often relies upon an imagining of all stuff as quantifiable, therefore as exchangeable, even as a bunch of women’s labour remains difficult to quantify (and I remain ambivalent about the usefulness of doing so for feminism). Speaking of things so familiar and taken-for-granted they are like the air we breathe…

  3. The Glibertarians tend to look at childrearing practices solely as ‘families exercising their private personal choices’ and thus as part of the heart of libertarian individualism, which is another reason they don’t count women’s unpaid family labour as part of any “social contract”. (eta) i.e. it’s an argument which has to be made separately from any arguments addressing the “taxation is theft” crap.

  4. Thank goodness a politician is finally saying this; I can’t believe it’s taken so long.
    “Social security” doesn’t just mean security for the people who might find themselves directly in need of support, it means making your society a secure one.

  5. Paul Krugman reflects on Warren’s remarks (I’m just going to quote the same paragraphs that Don Arthur quoted over at Club Troppo):

    On the other side, we have the claim that the rich have the right to keep their money — which misses the point that all of us live in and benefit from being part of a larger society.
    Elizabeth Warren, the financial reformer who is now running for the United States Senate in Massachusetts, recently made some eloquent remarks to this effect that are, rightly, getting a lot of attention. “There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody,” she declared, pointing out that the rich can only get rich thanks to the “social contract” that provides a decent, functioning society in which they can prosper.
    Which brings us back to those cries of “class warfare.”
    Republicans claim to be deeply worried by budget deficits. Indeed, Mr. Ryan has called the deficit an “existential threat” to America. Yet they are insisting that the wealthy — who presumably have as much of a stake as everyone else in the nation’s future — should not be called upon to play any role in warding off that existential threat.
    Well, that amounts to a demand that a small number of very lucky people be exempted from the social contract that applies to everyone else. And that, in case you’re wondering, is what real class warfare looks like.

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