Richard Epstein Critiques Elizabeth Warren

Elizabeth Warren’s Sloppy Progressivism
Richard A. Epstein
Defining Ideas
January 10, 2012

President Barack Obama is not the only high profile candidate for public office who portrays himself as the champion of the middle class. Right now, in Massachusetts, Elizabeth Warren, a longtime Harvard Law School professor, is projecting that same image in her determined run to displace Senator Scott Brown in next November’s election. Warren catapulted to fame in the Obama administration as the intellectual stimulus behind the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Board, now headed by Richard Cordray after a controversial recess appointment.

Now that Warren is free of her institutional obligations at the federal level, she has come out swinging on a large number of issues dear to progressive hearts. Her most powerful statement is posted conspicuously on moveon.org. Its call to arms requires a restrained and rational answer.

Here is her manifesto in full:

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.

Her first sentence is meant as a direct assault on the notion of radical individualism. Yes, it is obvious that no person “ever got rich on his own.” But that statement does nothing to undermine sensible forms of laissez-faire individualism. The reason why people do not get rich by themselves is not that they lack self-reliance or ambition. It is because the individuals who succeed understand the key proposition that personal gains result only through cooperation with others. The common business school refrain of win/win deals is not an observation about one person: it is, at its core, about two (or more) people, all of whom win through cooperative arrangements.

Faculty: 
Richard A. Epstein
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