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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