Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Does this Elizabeth Warren quote about the rich paying taxes make sense?


How does this justify anything more than obligating everyone to pay enough taxes to fund the kinds of basic services she refers to, like roads, police, and courts? I don't think even the most staunch libertarian would disagree with that.

Yet it seems clear that both Warren and the people who are circulating this quotation — including MoveOn.org, which uses the headline, "The Elizabeth Warren Quote Every American Needs To See" — mean to imply an obligation to pay much higher taxes than that. I just don't see how that follows.

UPDATE: For more analysis of Warren's quote, see my follow-up post (and the comments on this post).

13 comments:

Anonymous said...

This is not to explicate her quotation -- but one response to say that you are exactly right, but that you have misunderstood the "cost" of the police force, etc. The cost of the police force is not the line item in the stable budget of the police. Rather, it is something like this, "Look, these basic services exist not because of some bargain for them only, but because they are part and parcel of a cooperative enterprise. You want to be part of that - chip in commensurate with cooperation, not negotiation."

I'm not sure that this quotation would be the best way to say -- but it certainly explains the marauding bands bit.

Anonymous said...

Further to my prior comment: as written, I think your objection is pretty forceful. My attempt outlining of a defense was really an outline of what she _could have_ meant, but didn't really quite write. (And even then, I'm not saying it'd be correct - just that the bones are there to hang the argument on.)

John Althouse Cohen said...

Perhaps she should have refined her point in the way you've described, but then I would still have a similar response. OK, so it's about "cooperation." But cooperation to do what? Why do the services we're all "cooperating" to provide need to go beyond the basic level described in her examples?

You need police to prevent your stuff from being stolen and to keep from being injured or killed. You need courts to do justice to the people caught by the police, and to enforce contracts. Those kinds of government functions are consistent with minimal, "night watchman" libertarianism, and would require only a tiny fraction of the taxes Americans actually pay.

For one thing, you'd hardly need the federal government at all. The only exceptions I can think of are the military and maybe some highway-related stuff.

It's interesting how often these kinds of debates keep coming back to roads. Why is that? A Facebook friend of mine, Alex Knepper, said:

Since Democrats are so obsessed with "roads and schools" when they talk about spending, let's make a deal: let's quintuple the amount of spending on schools and roads, just to fulfill those obsessions. Then can we just abolish almost everything else? Since it's just roads that you guys are concerned about, apparently?

Anonymous said...

I agree - the substantive stuff is in the question about what is called for by cooperation. That said, even if "cooperation" alone doesn't push you to make more of an argument, the distinction between cooperation and negotiation (the former motivated by joint interest, the latter motivated by self interest, at least on a plausible read) should.

Minimal, night-watchman libertarianism is usually urged by either those who think that contracts (read: negotiation) are a good model for figuring out what government may do or by those who are - prior to the debate - already committed to some particular (read: controversial) notion of property rights. (These are overlapping groups, obviously.)

My contrast of cooperation and negotiation was intended (even if unsuccessfully) to put both of those into controversy.

Alternatively, you could - if you wanted - sign up for the night watchman stuff. Be a Nozickian to the hilt. For the majority of philosophical (contra pragmatic) libertarians, the night watchman state is not at this point a morally viable option. That certainly seems to me to be the only plausible way to read ASU.

Both of these arguments go far afield of what she said, however, so I'm more than willing to agree that her quotation is relied upon to the detriment of the relier. It is neither cogent nor pellucid.

Anonymous said...

(Scratch "only plausible" and replace with "most plausible" or "most apparently plausible".)

John Althouse Cohen said...

By the way, minimal "night watchman" libertarianism as per Robert Nozick's Anarchy, State, and Utopia isn't exactly my view. (I'm not sure it was even Nozick's view!) Nothing I've said in the post or these comments is intended to be a robust argument in favor of libertarianism. I'm just observing that for someone who happens to already be a staunch economic libertarian (for whatever reasons, good or bad), the Warren quote wouldn't seem to pose a strong challenge to their ideology.

Therefore, the Warren quote (which represents a type of argument that's frequently made on the left) doesn't strike me as something that would sway anyone on the right toward a more expansive, left-leaning view of the proper role of government. It seems more effective at strengthening the convictions of people who are already convinced, and who imagine that pro-business conservatives or libertarians would see the light if only they would stop and think for a minute about how the world works.

Summer Anne said...

Not arguing with your essential point -- I didn't find the quote very convincing, and I am firmly in her camp (I staunchly believe that the rich should pay more taxes than the poor and middle class). But! I find it interesting/convenient that in your list of things she names that are "essential," you left out/ignored the part about education. It's NOT true that most (or even any?) libertarians think that all americans should pay for public education -- quite the opposite.

Anonymous said...

Seconding Anne's comment. A convenient, telling, and disappointing omission.

John Althouse Cohen said...

Well, yeah, because it's more controversial whether education should be government-funded and -coerced. Doesn't that point out a serious flaw with her argument? She seems to assume that if government has been paying for something in the past, then the richest people today should be paying taxes for those services (and the laws backing them up) in the future. But that just seems to arbitrarily ignore the possibility that you might honestly believe we'd be better off without government involved in those areas. In that case, the issue of how to distribute the taxes wouldn't even arise.

It's worth noting that Rush Limbaugh had an extremely long rant about the Warren quote. He does have some good arguments: (1) The rich have already paid taxes on those roads, etc. (2) She only talks about the business that succeeds, not the (more numerous) businesses that fail. But beyond those specific points, this is a good example of the fact that the apparently intended effect of the Warren quote — to win over conservatives — just doesn't work. Again, the quote is effective, but not at changing minds — at solidifying the opinions of people who already agree with Warren. Some people seem to be very excited about this. I'm not.

triple steve said...

I think you missed the point of the quote. She's not defending government spending; it's a response to the rhetoric that the only people responsible for job creation in the U.S. are high-income/high-worth business leaders (the so-called "job creators").

John Althouse Cohen said...

I think you missed the point of the quote. She's not defending government spending; it's a response to the rhetoric that the only people responsible for job creation in the U.S. are high-income/high-worth business leaders (the so-called "job creators").

I don't understand where you get this interpretation from. How do you interpret her comments about how the rich need to "take a hunk of that and pay forward"?

John Althouse Cohen said...

To be clear, I do agree with you that the rich aren't the only people who have any effect on job creation. But how do you respond to my point that even a die-hard libertarian will admit that some minimal taxation is necessary for people to be free and businesses to thrive, and this minimalist view of government is clearly not what the left has in mind in circulating this quote?

Anonymous said...

This is the exact same reaction I had to the quote. Taxation is the price we pay for public services. Corporations as well. No one has any debt for these services after they have paid what they are legally required to pay in taxes.