“A pyromaniac in a field of straw men” George Will on Elizabeth Warren

It’s a bad sign for American punditry that George Will’s latest column slams Elizabeth Warren in such disgraceful fashion. It’s a good sign for American politics that the dean of patrician conservative columnists felt the need to do so.

It’s a bad sign for American punditry that George Will’s latest column slams Elizabeth Warren in such disgraceful fashion. It’s a good sign for American politics, though, that the dean of patrician conservative columnists felt the need to do so. I’m not the first to the party here–Yom Kippur intervened–but I still want to weigh in.

Mr. Will excoriating the below words spoken by Elizabeth Warren at a recent fundraiser:

Here is the offending paragraph, as transcribed by Mr. Will:

“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’s comments immediately went viral, accumulating 653,575 views on YouTube at last count. They add needed moral and political clarity to the 2012 campaign. Mr. Will takes issue with her because she’s drawn some blood, not least because her words are obviously true. She succinctly defines real differences between liberals and conservatives in pondering one of the most toxic long-term developments in American life: widening inequalities in income, wealth, and all that comes with that over the past generation.

Warren’s words also puncture the pretense of Randian libertarian conservatism—a surprising number of whose privileged adherents promise to “go Galt,” only to continually disappoint me by failing to follow through.

Will’s centerpiece rebuttal arrives via a quotation from William Buckley:

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…

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, a.k.a. 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.

I think these paragraphs are disgraceful—and ironic given’s Will’s immolation of so many straw men of his own. (To see the philosophical arguments more carefully rebutted, see William Galston’s response to Will here.)

It’s silly to say that liberals believe that “the collectivity … is entitled to take as much as it pleases” in taxing the wealthy. In that same YouTube video, Warren criticizes the Bush tax cuts for their imprudence. She’s talking about increasing marginal tax rates on the affluent by a few percentage points. Even that modest measure is opposed by many Blue State Democratic representatives of wealthy districts (cf. Schumer, Senator Charles).

Will inveighs against the views of various dead or unnamed liberal professors, some who apparently spent time at Harvard:

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 people 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.

Although GRE study words tumble out (my favorite being “tutelary”), these don’t accumulate to specifically engage what Elizabeth Warren actually said.

I don’t have the required signoffs to respond on behalf of the full liberal herd. Those running near me don’t much worry about false consciousness. We worry more about misleading information on your credit card statement and about what’s concealed in fine print in that inpenetrable stack of documents at your mortgage closing. These are vanilla ice cream market failures one doesn’t have to be especially liberal to support.

Warren’s supposed collectivist agenda mostly includes requirements for greater transparency by lenders, measures to more stringently regulate too-big-to-fail banks. She wants Medicare to bargain more aggressively with drug companies. She supports an ideologically moderate health reforms modeled after the one designed by Mitt Romney and supported by her state’s Republican senator. Her comments in that video clip are standard-issue American liberalism, no Marxian ideology or false-consciousness stuff much in evidence.

Mr. Will goes on to say:

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.

Absent some specific issue such as gay marriage, it’s hard to know what that first paragraph actually means. As for the second, Will is obviously right that “the individual depends on cooperative behaviors by others.” Except that it’s more than that. Affluent people benefit from a myriad of public policies, subsidies, legal arrangements, and social practices that are specifically designed to help them.

Consider Steve Jobs. Every liberal I know admires Mr. Jobs. Every one of them is saddened by Jobs’ untimely passing. Jobs earned his money. Government also played a huge role, not by getting out of the way, either. Government financed the rise of the internet, it provided financial aid and government research grants to thousands of computer scientists. It protected Apple (with imperfect success) against intellectual piracy.

Imposing somewhat higher progressive taxes on Mr. Jobs (whose fortune apparently exceeded $8 billion) and on other wealthy people, is not class warfare or some socialist plot to conscript the rich into forced labor. Such policies reflect the recognition that we all live in the same society. Especially in this time of national challenge, the most affluent, who have benefitted the most from what America has to offer, should do more to help out.

Warren’s plainspoken Midwestern populism poses a real problem for conservatives. The Republican playbook suggests caricaturing her as some snobbish and privileged professor who looks down on ordinary Americans. Yet it is Will, the bow-tied patrician moralist, who delivered Harvard lectures on the theme “Statecraft and soulcraft: What governments do.”

He’s also an odd spokesman for a platform of humble government that avoids social engineering. And underneath the glossy vocabulary, he’s not being all that nice, either.

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect, tnr.com, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.

65 thoughts on ““A pyromaniac in a field of straw men” George Will on Elizabeth Warren”

  1. Warren is merely arguing for government. Will, as is fashionable among conservanoids, assumes this to mean she is a communist. And off he goes. Like the Scarecrow of Oz, he’s himself a straw man with straw for brains.

  2. Any discussion of Will’s swipes at Warren could do with a link to the indispensable Charles Pierce’s take on the subject; a small taster:

    In a column so twee it seems to have been originally composed on a doily with a goose quill dipped in Earl Grey, our boy seeks to correct the misperception that most Americans have that they’re getting screwed with their pants on. Gaze in awe, as your betters explain to you why this is so terribly wrong….

  3. 1. Warren explains that there are common resources. People use them, so people should pay for them. Fair enough. What will we consider a common resource? Everything? If not everything, then what is the principle of limitation? The Constitution limits the Federal government to a much smaller role than the government now fulfills. Liberals consistently argue for no limits on what is considered common. This is not a straw man.

    2. Entitlements are not common resources. They’re transfers of wealth from one person, who loses, to another who gains.

    3. Suppose we raise taxes on the super-rich by a few points. Can we also raise taxes the same percent on the bottom 30-50% (depending on who you ask) who pay no taxes at all? Soak the rich, but lets get everyone paying into the system. Everyone should pay something. Deal?

    1. Jeff, when you spout BS like “the bottom 30-50% … who pay no taxes at all” you embarrass yourself. Wherever do you get your information?


      1. Tony, Kevin Drum had a couple of posts about that back in July.

        Short version: About 46% of all Americans will pay no income tax this year. For 30% because they’re either entirely too poor to pay taxes or because what little they’d pay in taxes gets offset by tax credits for low-income families. 10% are too old — Social Security income does not get taxed (meaning they’re also not exactly rolling in money). About 6% get to pay no income tax through other means.

        And obviously, they do pay plenty of non-income taxes still (payroll taxes, sales tax, gas tax, etc.).

        In short, for 40% of the population it comes down to the fact that they pay no income tax because their income simply is too low to pay income tax. And I’m a bit at a loss why this is often considered an indictment of those people (apparently, being poor is a crime) rather than of a society that is fine with such widespread poverty.

        1. Katja, I don’t raise it as an indictment of those people who don’t pay income taxes.

          I dispute whether they are really poor. Most have big screen televisions, cars, and central air conditioning. No where in the world is that poor.

          We have laws that let a huge minority of people avoid paying *something* in taxes. Let’s stop doing that.

          Add a few points to the super-rich’s taxes, but also add a few points so *everyone* pays something.

          1. You may find this article interesting (via Matt Yglesias, who also has some interesting insights to add).

            Very simply put, getting rid of those essential appliances (or a car, for that matter), would be a shortsighted move, economically.

            Second, when I say “too poor to pay income taxes”, I do not mean that everyone is necessarily starving (though, sadly enough, America is near the bottom of the barrel within the OECD when it comes to absolute poverty rates, too). But it means that those people generally do not have enough money left over to both lead a fairly frugal life and pay income tax on top of that. Elizabeth Warren, incidentally, happens to know a fair bit about this problem — she even wrote a book about some of it.

          2. Jeff, it’s not accurate to state that “we have laws that let a huge minority of people avoid paying *something* in taxes”. We have tax laws that:

            *exempt Social Security benefits from income tax, resulting in about 10% of the population not paying federal income taxes;
            *provide an Earned Income Tax Credit to low-income individuals and families, resulting in about 30% of the population not paying federal income taxes;
            *include federal payroll taxes, resulting in low and middle-income workers paying a higher percentage of their income in payroll taxes than do the wealthy;
            *include state and local income taxes;
            *include property taxes;
            *include sales taxes.

            The result is almost all Americans pay *something* in taxes. In fact, there are low and middle-income Americans who pay taxes at a higher rate than do some wealthy Americans.

            (I agree with your final point, about the benefits of adding a few percentage point to the taxes of the wealthy.)

          3. Katja, who’s talking about removing this appliances? Not me. Why would you even mention such a thing?

            I’m merely pointing out that these people are not really poor. They aren’t prosperous perhaps, but they’re not poor.

            They can pay *something*. Everyone should.

          4. The laws we have that “let a huge minority of people avoid paying *something* in [INCOME] taxes” are of exactly the same form as laws we have that allow certain fine, upstanding Americans with last names like Inc and Corp to “avoid paying *something* in taxes”.

            Some people call such laws “loopholes”, but devoted acolytes of the Archangel Norquist are pledged to never, ever, close them on pain of being cursed by bell, book, and candle. Closing loopholes equals raising taxes, you see. And the Grover-grovelers are sworn to never raise taxes on anybody, except possibly such Americans as greedily “consume jobs” that “job creators” so nobly and selflessly produce.


          5. I love this sort of “there are no poor people in America” talk from Conservatives.

          6. Jeff, you were talking about people having a car and air conditioning as though they were luxury items. In practice, they are necessities of life in modern America and getting rid of them would hardly save a family anything, while creating a lot of problems (ever tried shopping for a family of four without a car? Commute without a car in an area with poor public transport? Tried to work from home in a humid Michigan summer without air conditioning? It’s possible, but we’re talking about a major productivity loss here).

    2. 2. Entitlements are not common resources. They’re transfers of wealth from one person, who loses, to another who gains.

      “Wealth” is a product of government policies and resources just as much as poverty. Which entitlements would you eliminate and how? How about regulatory policies to attack the unequal distribution of income and assets in this country, e.g. a living minimum wage, a mandatory 35 hour work week with overtime paid a multiple of that minimum wage, and a cap on management and executive compensation at some multiple of the overall wage base might go a long way in bringing down the unemployment rate in this country and jump starting consumer demand again. But somehow I don’t think George Will or you would like those sorts of policies any better than entitlements.

      1. All of this policies are actually implemented in Europe. They have higher unemployment than we. The economic reasons for this are obvious.

        Consumer demand is not the problem and never has been. The entire concept of a liquidity trap is nonsense based on a faulty circular flow model of the economy.

        What entitlements would I eliminate? I’d start by expanding Bill Clinton’s welfare reform program to all federal programs. Yes, that includes means testing Social Security [sic].

        1. Jeff: All of this policies are actually implemented in Europe. They have higher unemployment than we. The economic reasons for this are obvious.

          Nonsense. Current unemployment in the Netherlands is 4.3%, in Germany it is 6.0%. Sweden and Denmark are around 7%ish, as I recall. The administration would be dancing with joy if we had those numbers in the US.

          “Well, if we implemented a German-style social democracy, we may have to live with 6% unemployment.” “6% unemployment? The horror! Please don’t throw me in that briar patch.”

          1. Katja, I’m afraid your wrong about this. Many of the northern European countries do not count people receiving welfare as unemployed. In Sweden, welfare recipients are sent on “labor market political activities” for the sole purpose of reducing the unemployment statistics. The Swedish government only counts people as unemployed, if they are actually being paid *not* to work. The Swedish unemployment rate does not count people who receive welfare (like unemployment insurance) but want to work.

            You’re comparing incomparable numbers.

            If we had pursued the extremely conservative monetary policies of Germany, we would have near full employment. Instead we got Obamanomics, which was Bush-league economics part two.

          2. Jeff, “labour market political activities” is an invention of right-wing Austrian economists, who for obvious political reasons don’t like Swedish labour market policy. The correct phrase is “active labour market POLICY,” which attempts to match unemployed workers to jobs actually needed in the economy. It’s had mixed results, some effective, some not very effective. It is, of course, true that the Swedish figure understated Swedish unemployment, in the same way that the US unemployment figure understates US unemployment. If we implemented tight money, we’d have what we have in Europe right now, which is a Eurozone crisis and chaos through the southern tier of the EU. Still waiting for those Austrian predictions of high inflation to come true….

          3. Jeff: If we had pursued the extremely conservative monetary policies of Germany, we would have near full employment.

            I’m not even sure where to start here. First of all, Germany is a Euro country. Which means that its monetary policies are controlled by the European Central Bank. Granted, Germany is an influential member of the Eurozone and had been pushing for those policies, but it’s still only one country. On top of that, the ECB is independent; it “shall [not] seek or take instructions from Community institutions or bodies, from any government of a Member State or from any other body”.

            Second, unemployment in Germany is currently pretty low for a number of reasons (whether it will last if we get another recession is a different question, of course). It is completely unrelated to a tight monetary policy, though — which, if anything, limits exports, and exports have been a big part of what drove Germany’s recovery.

            More importantly, unemployment in Germany is a problem that both conservative and social democratic governments have aggressively tackled. The most important policy here was the short work program (Kurzarbeit). In short, the government heavily subsidized companies to keep all or most of their employees on part time (paying a percentage of the difference in wages to employees) rather than letting those go that weren’t needed. That meant that rather than destroying a few million jobs and then having to go through rehiring and retraining millions of people at the tail end of the recession, employees could just continue when the economy picked up again.

            And that’s just one of several ways how German governments have tried to tackle unemployment. German governments — conservative and social democratic ones alike — have traditionally been very interventionist where labor market policy is concerned (which has to do with unemployment probably being the #1 economic statistic the German public cares about and one that is prominently reported on and discussed in the German news on a monthly basis). Even the extremely laissez-faire classical liberal party FDP states on its website: “We need a targeted use of more efficient labor market policies in order to give everyone the chance to return to the primary labor market.” (Google’s translation, which is actually pretty good.)

        2. How about collecting SS taxes on the wage earners making over $106,000 annually (or whatever the current cap is)? That would be a truly flat tax on all wages. (Not that I think a flat tax is a good thing; I’d prefer to exempt the first $50k in income from the SS tax even if it were revenue neutral with collecting the tax on all wages above the exempted amount.)
          I’m not sure why there is so much hand-wringing over means testing SS payments, however; it is already subject to income taxes in some circumstances where sufficient other income exists. http://www.ssa.gov/planners/taxes.htm

    3. Your post reflects a serious error in my opinion, one far deeper than the falsehood that a significant number of people pay no taxes or the related and never mentioned bservation that the rich game the system in their favor so that on balance they come out ahead even though they pay more taxes.

      This error is to see everything in terms of private values, an analysis that can cover public goods (if poorly in my opinion) but cannot cover public values: the values we believe a community should reflect as a community. We can argue over what those values should be but I doubt a coherent argument can exist holding that they do not exist.

      For example, property rights do not define themselves. They must be defined, and in a decent society they must be defined fairly. Because there will always be sincere disagreements as to their proper boundaries some fair means needs to be devised to decide those questions. The fairest includes some essential element of holding all equal, which we call democracy.

      Warren is talking the language of public values, the right wing is autistic on the subject except when they want to cram their own down everyone’s throats. And that includes libertarians in most cases because they believe they understand what property rights should be.

      1. It’s not a falsehood that 30-50% of people do not pay taxes. That’s a verifiable fact. I will not debate that with you.

        All I’m asking is this: where is the line drawn to distinguish private from public goods? You seem to assert that “the Public” can define that line any way they please.

        That would be the standard liberal position. There are no limits on what the Public can do. That is completely opposed to the idea of a limited, Constitutional government.

        IMO, public values ought to be construed in the narrowest possible way to allow individuals the widest scope of action.

        1. Jeff- you are being deliberately obtuse. 30-50% do not pay income taxes. In case you have not noticed, there is no shortage of taxes that people cannot avoid paying if they are a member of this economy in any sense. And those taxes are regressive.

          As to public – the line is drawn through political debate and voting. It starts with your property rights that set up a market, and continues. Most people, myself included, do not want the public to be too inclusive, but few except the ignorant want it to be nonexistent. Perhaps you with your pipeline to higher powers can tell me where the line should be drawn. But for us mere human beings, debate and discussion as equals works well enough. You are free to make your arguments about what the public should be – apparently eliminating public schools and roads given your logic – but others are equally free to make alternative arguments.

          You apparently do not know what the Founders meant by constitutional government. A constitution such as ours was a framework for making decisions where all concerned – or at least a majority of voters in every state that joined – felt the decision making rules were fair. No intelligent voter expected to always win, but they believed the rules were fair enough that all would on balance come out ahead. Speaking loosely but not inaccurately, the majority rule principle was applied in three different ways: House, Senate, and Executive – in the belief that if three different majorities formed in three different ways could agree, what came out of it would usually be beneficial.

          You also apparently do not understand what the Founders meant by limited government. They did not mean limiting the things government could do to serve the public if they so wanted, they meant limiting the powers it could bring to bear in doing so. Such as requiring just compensation rather than seizing property. They, by the way, were generally big supporters of public schools and roads.

          1. You’re being deliberately abusive, but that’s to be expected I suppose.

            Ex: “you are being deliberately obtuse” (context switching, this whole blog post is about Warren advocating income taxes, when I use the word taxes in this context it’s clearly income taxes I mean)
            Ex: “Perhaps you with your pipeline to higher powers can tell me where the line should be drawn.” (poisoning the well)
            Ex: “apparently eliminating public schools and roads given your logic” (assuming facts not in evidence, I’ve never made any claims about schools or roads)
            Ex: “You apparently do not know” (abusive ad hominem, characterizing the person rather than the claims)


            The Constitution clearly limits the government’s powers, and therefore the Public’s powers through the government. It did this by limiting the powers of government strictly to the enumerated powers (the powers in numbered sections of the document), in the Tenth Amendment. In the Ninth Amendment, the Constitution made clear that the rights specified in the Constitution does not represent a complete list. Even the unwritten rights are retained by the People (the individuals, not the Public).

            Since we agree on the Constitution as a framework for limited government, I ask you: has the federal government exceeded the limited powers granted in the Constitution?

            We got a constitutional amendment to allow for income taxation. That made income taxes subject to the legislative will of the Public. Don’t’ we need other such amendments for other sweeping powers wielded by the Public? And if we don’t have authorization for limited powers in the Constitution, what should be done about it

          2. Jeff- for some reason “reply” did not appear under your post so I am attempting this as an end run.

            I saw myself as not being abusive but calling you on your stuff.

            A lot of readers have corrected you on the “no one pays taxes” issue, so I guess that you simply did not make yourself clear. That is far better than being wrong. But the error is yours since the obligation of a writer is to make ones self clear. It is not a particularly big error because you have admitted to both aspects of the issue.

            My ‘pipeline to higher powers’ point is seriously meant. You claim knowledge superior to that of other Americans who disagree with you. From whence does it come? Your logic is explicitly libertarian, and we know that many libertarians attack public education and roads. That would seem in keeping with the widest possible range of individual freedom and narrowest interpretation of public values. If it is not what would you say to a libertarian who said it was?

            Now we get to the interesting stuff. The constitution seems to have two dimensions: one is a procedural means for electing representatives for making decisions and appointing judges. This has relatively little argument as to what it means and how it is interpreted. The other is what it empowers government to do. That is a perennial bone of contention going back to the Federalists and Democratic Republicans, both of whom had members at the Constitutional Convention and both of whom had authors for the Federalist Papers. I interpret the Founders generously on the scope of potential action. The Federalists were definitely in that camp and the Democratic Republicans were more there than is often acknowledged. Consider Jefferson’s letter to Madison October 28, 1785 that Ed Whitney links to. Here is a crucial part:

            “I am conscious that an equal division of property is impracticable. But the consequences of this enormous inequality producing so much misery to the bulk of mankind, legislators cannot invent too many devices for subdividing property, only taking care to let their subdivisions go hand in hand with the natural affections of the human mind. . . . Another means of silently lessening the inequality of property is to exempt all from taxation below a certain point, and to tax the higher portions of property in geometrical progression as they rise.” This seems to be the position you attack.

            Madison’s comment in the Federalist that if people gained more confidence in the national than the state governments, power would AND OUGHT TO flow to the nation.

            I interpret the constitution as a document enabling a large and diverse society to practice self government. The narrow interpreters seem to think it bound a nation to the beliefs of a long ago group of brilliant men living in entirely different conditions unless amendments were passed in a system that strongly favored the status quo. This makes no sense to me.

            Finally – do I think the government has exceeded constitutional authority? Yes. On matters of war. Also the executive on signing statements. Torture. The Supreme Court’s interpretation of corporations as individuals. And with a few libertarian exceptions I see almost all concern for these issues among some liberals and virtually no conservatives.

            So I largely have lost interest in what conservatives say regarding the meaning of the constitution. They put ideology first and the constitution second, and in most cases nearly always have.

        2. Jeff, this is the blog where we don’t get to make up our own facts (see masthead). You need to change your first sentence in your latest comment to “It’s not a falsehood that 30-50% of people do not pay federal *INCOME* taxes.” We’ve already established that they pay sales, property, payroll, and gas taxes at a minimum.

          There, that wasn’t too hard, was it? The rest of your comment is pure opinion, and you’re entitled to that (see masthead).

          1. Actually, I think you’re the one dropping context. Warren’s point was about income taxes. Clearly that’s what I ‘m talking about too.

        3. Yeah – this is ridiculous. Between payroll and sales tax alone, the working poor pay at least 20% of their income. The degree to which we all depend on their low wages more than makes up for any supposed inequity in taxation.

  4. When the execrable little worm isn’t stealing briefing books or cheating on his wife, he sure is a pompous little pustule of prolix, ain’t he?

    1. Word.
      Back when Will’s self satisfied little smirk and byline graced the back page of my Newsweek a commenter summed up a column noting that Will believes that the poor and underprivileged should pull themselves up by their boot straps the way he did, by getting their daddy to send them to an ivy league school. That is Will in a nut shell and now we can add to those boot straps lawyers and lobbyists.
      Warren has those rightwing intellectuals sweating. She is a liberal who knows how to cut through the the BS to the simple, common sense truth that even a deluded Tea Partier can grasp. Very scarey.

      1. JMG-
        “pompous pustule of prolix” — BRILLIANT!

        Will is not an intellectual. He just plays one on teevee. Some of the Chicago boys, I’ll grant, are heavyweight intellectuals, as are folk like Harvey Mansfield or James Q. Wilson or Charles Fried. And none of them would be caught dead saying such stupid things about Elizabeth Warren. But most “conservative public intellectuals” are mere propagandists, no more the intellectual than a chinless Steve Dunleavy or Westbrook Pegler.

  5. “Pompous little pustule of prolix”

    I am using that, with attribution of course.

    Stopped reading Will many years ago. One thing I am thankful for is that Will’s faculty member father was of the mild liberal persuasion IIRC. Had he been one of the three conservatives alive at the time, Geo. F. Will would have been constrained by various and sundry Oedipal urges to be a member of the RBC. I couldn’t take that.

  6. It was George Will who created the straw man. Warren was attacking John Galt libertarianism, not Burkean conservatism. Will’s defense of Burkean conservatism made a whole lot of sense, but Warren shares it. It is the Democratic Party that is the repository of Burkean virtues. Burke, btw, was a proud reformer. He was opposed to reform driven by crazy-ass theory, rather than a sober assessment of what is actually out there. Today’s crazy-assed theorists, of course, are Gang Galt. Burke was a Whig–the more progressive of the two parties. He parted with the Whigs on the French Revolution (where he was correct for mostly the right reasons), but never went Tory. You might want to view Burke as a nuanced anti-communist 1960’s Democrat. It’s anachronistic, but much more fair to Burke than Burke as George Will’s hero. It’s kind of sad that this man is the hero of modern conservatives. But then again, this is a movement that views Jesus Christ as a macho shit-kicker. (Well, he did do some macho shit-kicking once, but his target was the moneylenders.)

    Beneath all the fancy-pants rodomontade, Will is either a very stupid man or the butt-boy of his paymasters. I don’t think it is worth the trouble to figure out which of these two it is.

    1. Wrong. American conservatism is informed by the Whig tradition. That’s why it’s silly to talk of a “right wing” in American politics. We don’t have tories here.

      American Progressives, who are mostly in the Democratic Party, are informed by the traditions of the European Left. Indeed, Progressivism was a movement to establish Left policies in the US.

      There is a Left but no Right in American politics. You don’t quite have it topsy-turvy, but you’re listing badly.

      1. Well, actually, some of American conservatism is informed by the Whig tradition. Some is informed by homegrown nativism. Some is informed by various strains of more-or-less theocratic Protestantism.

        As for Tories, we’ve had them here since the country’s founding. In some colonies (now states), like South Carolina, the Revolution was basically a civil war with the white population pretty much evenly divided between.

        As for the left wing of American politics, some of it is informed by European communism and socialism. A larger part is informed by homegrown American populism and various strains of political thought that date back to the Revolution.

        1. The trick of it all is the “some”. You’re right, we had Tories before and during the Revolutionary war, but not after. They lost.

          There was no American Left until the 20th century. The Progressive movement formed fully under Wilson and FDR. It’s preeminently a movement to institute European socialism in the US. The only marxism in the US is Gramsci-style cultural marxism of the Van Jones variety. That’s a fringe, though.

          We certainly disagree on the genealogy and size of modern political movements.

          1. Yes, Jeff. We disagree on the genealogy and size of modern political movements. I don’t feel particularly argumentative right now, so I’ll leave it at this, except to note that I was talking about libertarianism, not conservatism. I’ll agree with you that there is some of the Whig tradition in American conservatism. So I’ll merely note my disagreement with you on the relationship between progressivism and socialism, and leave it at that.
            I haven’t seen you on this blog before. Welcome aboard!

  7. I haven’t read the guy for years. He just loves talking down to people. Of course, so do most of the NY Times op-ed columnists (Krugman excepted).

  8. “2. Entitlements are not common resources. They’re transfers of wealth from one person, who loses, to another who gains.”

    This assertion is simply too stupid for words. Are you referring to Social Security, the program that has built up a surplus of trillions of dollars? Or perhaps Medicare, a system that is still mostly self sustaining? Or how about unemployment insurance? That system, too, depends on the contributions of the employed. Are you saying that if I purchase fire insurance that it is a “transfer” of wealth on a zero sum basis?

    What unbelievable ignorance.

  9. Here is the opening paragraph of a 1984 column in Newsweek. Can anybody guess the author?

    America the Undertaxed
    “Ah, July: the fields are white with daisies. In January, I promised that not
    “until the fields are white with daisies” would I again mention that we are, as
    a nation, undertaxed. I now return to that topic because the inescapable need
    to raise taxes raises this question: can Ronald Reagan really want to be
    re-elected? If he faces facts –if he reads the numbers in the Wall Street
    Journal — he knows that in 1985 the President must hurry to restore the
    government’s revenue base. Reagan cannot be a Reaganite after 1984.”


    1. > That “planned economies inevitably fail” is only true, if it’s true at all, because we Americans have never taken a whack at the problem.

      And, thankfully the American people have stymied this president’s every attempt to “take a whack” at it. Government intrusion into the economy rarely works because government allocates money where there is a political gain to be had. They don’t spend money where there is a market. I can provide myriad examples (the Chevy Volt, the $4 billion California bullet train to nowhere, Solyndra, Light Squared). If an idea is not viable, the free market will kill it. The government will steamroll right over any evidence that a company’s product is not marketable, if there are votes or campaign contributions to be won. Solyndra was the worst example of this phenomenon.

      > Feel free to deny “American exceptionalism” if you care to, of course. But don’t simultaneously rely on it as a talking point unless you like being laughed at.

      I don’t deny American exceptionalism. I was an officer in the US Army and know full well what this country can accomplish…and it can be done without the government. It can’t be done WITH government interference.
      The ones like me who knew the stimulus package wouldn’t work are the only ones who laugh legitimately now. Unfortunately a $787 billion failure is not very funny, especially when the president wants to double down on that irresponsibility…or is he just engaging in political theater? Either way, his big government policies are a colossal failure.

        1. > An Army officer who talks as if the Army is NOT part of “the government” worries me.

          Yawn. another lame attempt to make someone who doesn’t agree with you look insane.

          Of course the military is part of the government, and I agree that our bloated military establishment should undergo cuts as well. But, a strong military is far more critical to our country than agencies that have never been successful at anything (Department of Energy, Department of Education, etc.) Those should be the first to be cut and they should not be allowed to hire until they’ve demonstrated several years of actual success. I want them to have lean Six Sigma implemented and, if they don’t fully comply within two years, the entire upper management tier should be let go.

          Dept of Education – our schools are 38th in the world (unacceptable)
          Dept of Energy – This one was formed in the late 1970s to get us off of dependency on foreign oil (we were at around 25% foreign usage then). Over three decades later and billions of dollars wasted, we’re now at around 75% foreign oil usage. That agency is a travesty and should be cut off as far as I’m concerned.

  10. George would be doing much better if he were to realize he’d be better off in retirement. He most likely has little more time upon the orb earth, and would do well spending such precious time with his family and loved ones. He’d also be gracing the rest of us with a respite from his unintellectual blather. What a win-win turn of events that would be!

    That wish aside, maybe we could get dear old, (and I do mean old as in stale intellectual, not physically aged), George to go away if we let out a loud and sustained, GO AWAY message over say the next year or two. In fact it may only take a month or two since good ol’George really has had nothing more to say of any value these days!

    George Will, a putzy sort of guy for the far Right crowd here in America!

  11. One irony in Will’s piece is that his description of the role of government vis a vis the individual “Government — including such public goods as roads, schools and police — is instituted to facilitate individual striving, a.k.a. the pursuit of happiness.”, full stop, is the very definition of a hand-out. The government is to provide services to the “individual” and get nothing in return. The second irony is that Elizabeth Warren’s position is the very essence of a capitalist transaction, we’ll provide you services and in return you will pay back some of the value added by the services we provide.

    Will oddly (well not so odd for Will) accuses her of believing that the service provide may charge any price it wants for the services it provides. But Warren addresses that by pointing out that she, and we liberals in general, are happy to set the prices so that our customers get rich. One would think that someone in Will’s position might recognize that the actual price limit is “what the market will bear”, we just want to set our prices lower. Just not for free.

    1. Or let them contemplate http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/v1ch15s32.html and in particular:
      “…legislators cannot invent too many devices for subdividing property, only taking care to let their subdivisions go hand in hand with the natural affections of the human mind. …Another means of silently lessening the inequality of property is to exempt all from taxation below a certain point, and to tax the higher portions of property in geometrical progression as they rise. Whenever there is in any country, uncultivated lands and unemployed poor, it is clear that the laws of property have been so far extended as to violate natural right. The earth is given as a common stock for man to labour and live on…”

      1. Wonderful quotes. Thanks. I’d forgotten about the Jefferson one and never read the Franklin one.

      2. I found two quotes by Adam Smith to suggest that these sentiments were not simply on the west side of the pond…

        “it is the luxurious and not the necessary expense of the inferior ranks of people that ought ever to be taxed.”


        “by necessaries I understand, not only the commodities which are indispensably necessary for the support of life, but whatever the custom of the country renders it indecent for creditable people, even of the lowest order, to be without.”

        From Stephen Holmes, The Anatomy of Illiberalism, pp. 196. 300n

  12. “She refutes propositions no one asserts. Everyone knows that all striving occurs in a social context, so all attainments are conditioned by their context.”

    Apparently George Will has never met any Republicans.

  13. I rarely read Will, though I’m told that his book about baseball is good. I wonder if in writing it he dropped the snotty, smug persona that he adopts for his political columns. If so, here’s a guess: the less sensible his arguments, the more recondite his vocabulary, the more convoluted his prose, and the more supercilious his tone. When he has something to say that actually makes sense, he writes so as to be understood.

  14. I’ll disagree with Harold on this from Will:
    “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 asserts no such thing. But I do. There is no inherent limit of right on the taxing power of a democratic state. In a total war, it is entitled to reduce private consumption to a the minimum needed to sustain personal and social life and appropriate the entire productive surplus through taxation for the war effort – an approximate description of Britain’s war economy 1939-45. Of course, the needs for public goods are less overwhelmingly urgent today and the balance with private consumption is rightly struck at a lower level: though very differently in Sweden and the USA. The balance is a matter for debate, negotiation, and elections, not a matter of imaginary first principles.

  15. I’d like to go back for a moment to the whole “people who have cars or big-screen tvs aren’t poor” line, because there seems to be a a school of thought in which the technological advances of the past 30 years (and the sectoral price changes that went with them) never happened. In 1981 a personal computer cost as much as a year’s half-share in a two-bedroom apartment in a good part of Brooklyn. In 2011, it cost as much as a week’s — if you didn’t just pick up an old one from the kerb. Cars for the poor (used, not quite last legs) used to cost somewhere between 20 and infinity months of an employee’s share of health insurance premiums (and insurance was the rule, not the exception). Now a used car for suitable for a poor person costs roughly as much as 1-6 months of family coverage in the individual market. Things that were once expensive are now cheap, and vice versa.

    Saying that people aren’t poor in the US because they have a few gew-gaws makes as much sense as lamenting how impoverished FDR’s parents must have been to forgo getting him a polio vaccination.

  16. I’ve seen Warren in various specials, and when she had sit down interviews, but seeing her now, wow, sign me up!

  17. Warren speaks as if the guy who built the factory didn’t contribute to the roads, bridges, and police that were paid for by “the rest of us.” The factory owner paid into those services too.

    And, the “social contract” is a fantasy that exists only in the mind of a leftist. I don’t recall signing any contract and would bet that none of the CEOs did either. Such an idea is almost as ridiculous as the over-used phrase “give back” (to the community). Give what back? Nothing was taken. If anything, paying higher taxes would suggest that the community should give back to the rich person. Mind you, I’m a regular middle class guy who bears no animosity toward wealthy people. Rather, I’m happy for them.

    Bottom line, there will always be rich people and will always be poor people. That is the way it has always been and it will never change. Even in communist countries, there are elites who live far better than the working class. People who claim they want to eliminate poverty will just be angry all their lives…much like the anger you can hear in Warren’s voice.

    1. I haven’t visited it, but do know that they have kept their spending levels to around 40% of GDP. That is a healthy level of debt. Plus, you cannot compare a country with a relatively homogeneous population of around 5 million people to a very diverse country of over 300 million. I’ve heard Oprah Winfrey try to make the same argument about Denmark. Nice try.

      I can give you a much longer list of planned economy failures: Greece, USSR, North Korea, Cuba, Spain, Italy, East Germany, Ireland, and finally – Chile (until they went capitalist in the early 80s and privatized their social security system – now they’re the envy of South America). I could keep going, but am sure trying to convince this crowd would be wasted keystrokes.

      1. Yes, Paradigm, it would be a waste of keystrokes. None of us in the crowd are capable of understanding that a particular spending level–say–40% of GDP–has any necessary implications for a deficit. It’s good to know that you partake of higher wingnut wisdom.

        1. > It’s good to know that you partake of higher wingnut wisdom.

          Clearly you didn’t get the memo that the left’s attempts to paint conservatives as nutcases and racists are not really working anymore.

          > None of us in the crowd are capable of understanding that a particular spending level–say–40% of GDP

          That’s not what I was talking about. What I meant was that I can provide a plethora of examples of how planned economies inevitably fail, and this crowd will still be convinced that we should expand government control in the US. The US is also a prime example of how government control of the economy is a fool’s errand.

      2. Paradigm-
        Your use of “planned economy” so as to combine state socialist with market based welfare states suggests you really need to study what you want to write about before you write about it. Once you are able to get that distinction down then there are interesting issues to discuss, such as the prosperity of the Scandinavian countries. But not till then.

        1. > Your use of “planned economy” so as to combine state socialist with market based welfare states suggests you really need to study what you want to write about before you write about it

          I know the difference and neither of them work. Both involve government intrusion into the economy, which will never work in a country the size of ours.

          > there are interesting issues to discuss, such as the prosperity of the Scandinavian countries.

          Fine…discuss it. Of course, you’ll also have to include the fact that everyone in those relatively small populations pays taxes. They don’t have nearly half of their population paying nothing, yet receiving “refunds.” Again, it’s shortsighted to compare a homogeneous population of 5 million to a diverse population of 300+ million. Once you are able to get that distinction down, there are interesting issues to discuss…but not till then.

          1. Paradigm, you are right: the good ole USA is so unique, so unlike any other nation, that it’s pointless to discuss any lessons we might learn from the experience of foreigners. For instance, Soviet commissars were bumbling, non-American incompetents; we Americans, exceptional as we are, COULD make a “planned” economy work because we are, well, exceptional. That “planned economies inevitably fail” is only true, if it’s true at all, because we Americans have never taken a whack at the problem. What’s “inevitable” for lesser nations is no problem for an exceptional, unique people like us. Feel free to deny “American exceptionalism” if you care to, of course. But don’t simultaneously rely on it as a talking point unless you like being laughed at.


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