It seems as though over the past few days the Internet has become a giant
device whose sole purpose is to pass along this Elizabeth Warren quote:
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, and hire someone to protect against this, because of the work
the rest of us did. 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.
This is all true, but I think the argument against "getting rich on one's
own" is more fundamental. Wealth is a social construct. It is the
ability to acquire more goods and services than other people. And
that ability is conferred by other people. In this respect wealth
is different from, say, a river. If we all agree that the river isn't
there, we still get wet when we try to cross it. But if we all stop
providing goods and services in exchange for money, as tends to happen in
crumbling societies... then poof, that wealth actually does disappear.
I say this in every article, but here it is again: money is inherently
useless. It is nothing more than a funny-looking piece of paper, or a
magnetic state on some hard drive somewhere. Even if you're one of those
people hoarding gold, all you can do with it by yourself is plate
your own headphone jacks or make yourself a dental crown. Money's value
lies in its status as a token representing a relationship with
other people. If we lived in societies small enough that everyone
knew everyone else, we wouldn't need money, because everyone would know
how much everyone else had contributed to the welfare of the group, and
distribute goods and services accordingly. (Note: "accordingly" does not
necessarily mean "in a strict one-to-one manner.") But modern societies
tend to be much too large for that. Therefore we have a general
agreement — an underlying social contract, to use Warren's
words — that we will create goods and provide services to
others in exchange for these tokens, with the understanding that others
will accept these tokens in exchange for the goods and services we want.
Why would they? Because underlying each token is the implicit promise
that we deserve those goods and services — that we
acquired these tokens by contributing to society.
Normally at this point I proceed to the argument that our society is
breaking down because the best way to amass these tokens is not to
contribute to society at all but rather to dick around with the tally
sheets. And that's true, but Elizabeth Warren made her comments in the
context of a plutocratic hue and cry about taxes, so let me address that
instead. I was going to summarize the right-wing argument against
taxation, but as it happens Michele Bachmann encapsulated it nicely in
last night's Republican presidential debate, in response to the question,
"Out of every dollar I earn, how much do you think that I deserve to keep?":
I think you earned every dollar, you should get to keep
every dollar that you earn. That's your money, that's not
the government's money.
The problem with this argument is that it is the government's money.
Open your wallet and look at your money. Is your name on it? No. The
government's name is on it. Because money is a scoring system
for "earnings" that only makes sense within the context of a society, and
the stability of that society is maintained by the government —
by providing a common currency, for one. To complain that the rules of
society provide that the government can reclaim some of its money as a
means of enabling collective action — e.g. to build those roads
and schools Warren talked about, establishing those police forces,
etc. — is like an NFL team complaining, "Kickoffs are being
moved up five yards?! How dare you! We earned those yards! Those
aren't your yards, National Football League, they're our
yards!" Just as those yards only have meaning within the context of a
football game, money only has meaning within the context of society. So I
would say that you don't need to point out all the ways society helps an
entrepreneur get rich to make the argument that "nobody in this country"
"got rich on his own" — for it is only in relationship to
society that those riches even exist.
But that's a pretty abstract argument that I doubt would connect with
many voters, which is one of the many reasons that I probably shouldn't
run for the Senate.
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