Clause 61: The Pushback Blog

Because ideas have consequences

Declarations of Dependence

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In August 2011, speaking in Andover, MA, Elizabeth Warren made these comments:

I hear all this, you know, ‘Well, this is class warfare, this is whatever.’ No. 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.

As if building on this idea, President Barack Obama made these comments in a campaign speech in Roanoke, VA on July 13, 2012:

There are a lot of wealthy, successful Americans who agree with me — because they want to give something back.  They know they didn’t — look, if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own.  You didn’t get there on your own.  I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart.  There are a lot of smart people out there.  It must be because I worked harder than everybody else.  Let me tell you something — there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there.

If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help.  There was a great teacher somewhere in your life.  Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive.  Somebody invested in roads and bridges.  If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that.  Somebody else made that happen.  The Internet didn’t get invented on its own.  Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.

The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.  There are some things, just like fighting fires, we don’t do on our own.  I mean, imagine if everybody had their own fire service.  That would be a hard way to organize fighting fires.
So we say to ourselves, ever since the founding of this country, you know what, there are some things we do better together. That’s how we funded the GI Bill. That’s how we created the middle class. That’s how we built the Golden Gate Bridge or the Hoover Dam. That’s how we invented the Internet. That’s how we sent a man to the moon. We rise or fall together as one nation and as one people, and that’s the reason I’m running for President — because I still believe in that idea. You’re not on your own, we’re in this together.
[Source]

Some defenders of this idea claimed at the time that Obama’s remarks were being taken out of context. For this reason, I have included all the paragraphs that factcheck.org included when making such a claim.

Peggy Noonan wrote a very effective parody of this less than a month later:

From a friend watching the Olympics: “How about that Michael Phelps? But let’s remember he didn’t win all those medals, someone else did. After all, he and I swam in public pools, built by state employees using tax dollars. He got training from the USOC, and ate food grown by the Department of Agriculture. He should play fair and share his medals with people like me, who can barely keep my head above water, let alone swim.” The note was merry and ironic. And as the games progress, we’ll be hearing a lot more of this kind of thing, because President Obama’s comment—”You didn’t build that”—is the political gift that keeps on giving.
— “The Life of the Party”, http://www.peggynoonan.com/661/

So — obvious truths or outrageous philosophical claims?

The Philosophy of Dependence

There is a philosophical pedigree for the ideas that Warren and Obama are promoting. Their statements call the question on fundamental ideas of:

  • Deserved reward: in a society in which the co-operation of others is necessary to get any meaningful results, what share of the results can any one person really deserve?
  • Moral responsibility: to what extent are you responsible for your actions? To what extent is the community?

The subject touches on moral agency, free will and self-reliance. This is not a new topic of discussion. Friedrich Nietzsche wrote:

The desire for “freedom of will” in the superlative, metaphysical sense, such as still holds sway, unfortunately, in the minds of the half-educated, the desire to bear the entire and ultimate responsibility for one’s actions oneself, and to absolve God, the world, ancestors, chance, and society therefrom, involves nothing less than to be precisely this causa sui, and, with more than Munchausen daring, to pull oneself up into existence by the hair, out of the slough of nothingness.
— Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, Chapter I

Informed by thinkers such as Nietzsche, communitarians have for a long time criticized the individualistic definition of the self. They have maintained that people are not, in the words of Charles Taylor, “self-sufficient outside of society,” and that the self is formed independent of social relations. From this, it would seem to follow that Taylor believes both that Nietzsche was correct in his criticism of individual moral responsibility, and that it is difficult for an individual to claim to deserve any distinct reward for contributing to a group effort, even if that contribution was to plan, organize and direct.

However, this is by no means a settled issue. Robert Nozick described humans as self-owners: in full control of their talents, abilities and labor and the fruits of their application of these. He also takes the position that human beings are ends in themselves. From this, it follows that a person is able to grant or withhold her participation in a group effort, is morally responsible for her decision and is entitled to rewards that she deserves for the contribution she provides.

As Andrew Cline explained, the positions of Warren and Obama are an inversion of all this. Instead of government deriving legitimacy from the consent of the governed, it is We the People who must ask the government what we deserve for our efforts:

In Obama’s formulation, government is not a tool for the people’s use, but the very foundation upon which all of American prosperity is built. Government is not dependent upon the people; the people are dependent upon the government.

The system “allowed you to thrive.” That is fundamentally non-Jeffersonian. You succeeded because a greater power — the state — bestowed its favor upon you. The setup, the whole reason for the argument, is Obama’s contention that your wealth is not your creation, but an allowance from the state:

“You didn’t build that” was the clincher that would justify the demand to “give something back.” Not “give,” but “give… back.” The distinction is critical. Your wealth, he clearly and unmistakably asserts, is not your creation, it was given — allowed — by the state. And now the state wants some of it back. Refuse and you are denying the state its rightful claim to the wealth it “helped” you to create.
— “What ‘You Didn’t Build That’ Really Means — and Why Romney Can’t Explain It”, The Atlantic (http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2012/08/what-you-didnt-build-that-really-means-and-why-romney-cant-explain-it/260984/#).

A full treatment of the philosophy behind these remarks would be a book-length effort. If you are interested, I direct you to the following supplementary materials, which you can read without charge on the Internet:

  1. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
    1. Autonomy
    2. Desert
    3. Moral Luck
    4. Nozick, Robert
    5. Responsibility
  2. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
    1. Communitarianism
    2. Desert
    3. Feminist Perspectives on the Self
    4. Free Will
    5. Incompatibilist (Nondeterministic) Theories of Free Will

I caution the reader that philosophy has trends, fads and fashions no less than any other subject of human study. These and the related materials are useful, but not the definitive last word.

How Stuff Gets Done

No one disputes that most of the interesting problems in the world require solutions designed and implemented by groups of people. Innovation, by definition, requires participation.

What are the appropriate rewards for various dissimilar contributions to group success? We can get some insights from everyday life at work.

A committee is a group that keeps minutes and loses hours.
— Milton Berle

Just putting a group of people together does not cause results to magically emerge. Many executives and managers have learned this the hard way. Someone has to stand up and risk being wrong, to take responsibility and overcome the indolence and inertia of others and guide the group forward.

Popular ideas link expectation of reward to hard work, but to hear people talk, everyone works hard. You can find a thousand people who are willing to work hard and still not one person who is willing to risk being wrong.

Victory has a hundred fathers, but defeat is an orphan.
— Usually attributed to President John F. Kennedy, but he got it from Tacitus, c. 98 AD.

After the results are in, if success is obtained, everyone standing downwind has a claim to deserve a share. However, if the effort fails, everyone who did not publicly take a position leading the effort will run and hide.

If the world worked any other way, we would not need salespeople. People looking for a solution would charge out into the marketplace, armed with perfect information, and select the best product without any guidance from anyone else. But in fact we do need salespeople to promote our product, establish mindshare and explain benefits. Salespeople also get prospects off dead center and lead them to make decisions to buy sooner rather than later.

Collectivism and Its Discontents

When these remarks were made, particularly those by the President, there was a lot of pushback. I am grateful that the country was paying attention. I hadn’t expected as much of a reaction over what is essentially a philosophical issue. I think that many people whose views align with those of Warren and Obama hadn’t expected it, either, and were scrambling for a response.

The “out of context” defense is disingenuous, and also lame. If the point of the remarks had been only that no man is an island, we already knew that. No one ever asserted that anyone ever did get rich “on his own,” without the participation of others or without the legal and physical infrastructure of society. The question is what to focus on: the person taking initiative or the group being led, the innovation or the ground that has already been paved by others. The point was, as Cline articulated, a radical reorientation of the relationship between governing and governed. That has always been the point of planners and collectivists. It was explained by Lester Thurow back in 1971.

Warren claims the existence of an “underlying social contract.” Yes, I believe there was a social contract in existence — in the forties and fifties. It unraveled because everyone decided to “improve” it in their own way, including the Federal government, after which there was no longer a societal consensus. The government does not have the prerogative to unilaterally redefine the rights and obligations of the polity. In its wisdom, our government helped abrogate the social contract. This is a major cause of the support for Donald Trump this year: people who feel that rewards in society are being directed to the undeserving. The correctness of this view is out of scope of this discussion; the relevant fact is that the view exists.

Although the viewpoint of Warren and Obama is not a perspective I share, I believe that the discussion that arises from these remarks is necessary. There are so many different concepts of who the deserving people are that we need to have a conversation about them, taking the subject on directly and coming to some sort of conclusion. We can’t just muddle through anymore; we need to face the conflict and work out what kind of society we want to have.

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