Elizabeth Warren and the doulos

Elizabeth Warren‘s recent remarks offer a striking glimpse into a prominent strain of American political thought. Warren is a Harvard law professor and U.S. Senate candidate, and she has been a White House presidential assistant. An excerpt:

“There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody.
warrenelizabeth“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.”

What gives this argument rhetorical force is its appeal to a principle of economic justice: You should pay for the benefits you get from others. Don’t be a freeloader. Warren combines that principle with a list of benefits an imagined factory builder has received from others to get the implicit conclusion and policy recommendation: The factory builder has unpaid debts that justify increased taxation.

Five observations and questions:

1. On the seriousness of the economic justice claim: If we’re to conclude that the factory owner (let’s call her Jill) has unpaid debts, are we to (a) estimate how much benefit Jill the factory builder has received from others, (b) determine how much she has paid for those benefits (since presumably she paid her employees, truckers, and taxes), so that (c) we can determine whether she has paid too much, too little, or the right amount? Are we to make that serious accounting effort, or is this argument meant to generate an unspecified debt claim and a blank check for politicians and the IRS to fill in as they judge best?

2. On the transfer of debt: Warren points out that, for example, many of the factory’s employees were educated in government schools. The government has taxed its citizens and used that money to educate, say, Jack. Interestingly, Warren does not say that Jack now has a debt to society that he should pay. Instead, the debt seems to shift to Jill when she hires Jack. How does that work?

3. On disingenuous application: Warren targets her argument only against the prosperous. Yet middle and low income people also receive the same benefits as the factory builder—they use the roads, enjoy police and fire protection, use the services of those educated in public schools, and so on. Why is Warren not also hectoring middle and low income people for apparently violating the social contract?

4. On the compatibility of the economic justice principle with the rest of Warren’s political philosophy: Warren here suggests strongly that Jill the factory builder has freeloaded on unpaid benefits from the rest of society and that justice requires that she pay for what she received from others. Does Warren therefore favor abolishing the welfare state? I rather doubt it. So we end up in an odd position: Those who live on or profit from government welfare get a pass in Warren’s system, while those who build factories are considered freeloaders.

5. On the doulos and a historical echo: In Plato’s Crito (50d), Socrates argues that he has no right to escape from prison, even if he is innocent. Socrates imagines himself in conversation with the Laws of the State and has the Laws say to him, ‘”In the first place did we not bring you into existence? Your father married your mother by our aid and begat you. Say whether you have any objection to urge against those of us who regulate marriage?” None, I [Socrates] should reply. “Or against those of us who regulate the system of nurture and education of children in which you were trained? Were not the laws, who have the charge of this, right in commanding your father to train you in music and gymnastic?” Right, I should reply.’

Socrates has agreed that the State made possible his existence and upbringing. Consequently, he is in debt to the State, as the Laws go on to conclude forcefully:

“Well, then, since you were brought into the world and nurtured and educated by us, can you deny in the first place that you are our child and slave, as your fathers were before you?”

Doulos: In ancient Greece, a slave (δοῦλος).” In the above translation of Plato’s text, doulos is translated as either child or slave. Thus we have an argument for paternalism and slavery: Socrates, his ancestors, and presumably his descendants, are creatures and chattels of the State.

Is Warren’s position that different?

Perhaps hers is not meant as a serious argument, though, and only as red meat thrown to the “Tax the rich!” political base. But what if Warren is serious?

17 thoughts on “Elizabeth Warren and the doulos

  • October 1, 2011 at 4:36 pm

    John, that is not an argument; it is a series of assertions

  • October 1, 2011 at 4:38 pm

    I would suggest looking at the problem from a different perspective: by attempting to define the role of the ‘public good’ in society, and what it means to have public goods. Based on John Rawls concept of the ‘veil of ignorance’ (or straightforward utilitarianism) it could be shown by observation that some services are better held in the hands of a state, and not in private ownership. The most obvious example could be the justice system. Such a service is a public good. And then ask: what is the obligation of a member of the state to have access to the ‘public good’?

    The justice system is a legitimate part of government. I don’t need to turn to Rawls theory of blind justice or some utilitarian nonsense in order to understand this

  • October 6, 2011 at 7:36 pm

    Lorenzo from Oz “If someone emigrates from the US, on Warren’s argument, do they have to pay back taxpayers for all the money spent on them?”

    Funny you should mention that. Communist regimes used to use that as an excuse to deny emigration rights–and lots of communist sympathizers in America supported such arguments.

  • October 8, 2011 at 2:10 am

    Nice analysis, Stephen. I think the emotional appeal of Warren’s argument is humility. Take the businessman’s claim that he created his wealth and earned his fortune by his own effort. For Warren, the businessman is assuming credit that belongs to the rest of society. Such hubris!

  • October 8, 2011 at 7:00 pm

    @John Theis – You’re probably not going to read this, as I sense you are a typical ranting collectivist who dropped a bomb and then moved on. But on the off chance you’re looking for feedback, I’ll try to learn you a thing or three. I’m not sure why you weren’t able to successively number your arguments, but I’ll keep with your paradigm out of respect for your human dignity.

    You state:
    “Third, societies do not function well if there is massive inequality. Most researchers of on democracy argue that inequality is incompatible with democracy. See Robert Jackman or Edward Muller. if you need exact cites I can get them.”

    I think I’m going to need those cites in order to take this contention seriously. A search on “Robert Jackman” elicits obituaries, which can hardly be used to support an objective understanding of whatever it is you’re trying to say. Searching for “Edward Muller” leads to a site prefaced with “Welcome to the home page of Edward Muller, author, programmer, and cookie baker.” Perhaps tasty cookies can influence the credibility of a philosopher’s opinions, but I’d rather not rely solely on that admittedly important area of expertise in judging Mr. Muller’s contribution to our discussion.

    The above notwithstanding, your normative statements regarding inequality and democracy are not supported by reality. In fact, democracy assumes that not all people have equal abilities. While we can (hopefully) agree that all people are created equal (inasmuch as we can all claim our worth as individual humans), the concept of equality you seem to promote is a false premise. Everyone is not equal with regard to individual success. However, in the realm of determining the impact government has on an individual’s life, all are equal in their ability to influence the course of government, through the “one person, one vote” concept. Which leads to your next statement:

    “Nunber 1) this is what democratic decision making is all about making that determination. the IRS or govt. bureaucrat bogeyman is irrellevant because they should carry out what we decide.”

    Let’s begin with an examination of the word “should.” Although there are several entries in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, I’ll choose this one: “used in auxiliary function to express obligation, propriety, or expediency.”

    Used in this sense, I agree, The IRS or government “bogeyman” ought to be fulfilling the will of the people as expressed at the ballot box. Yet I contend that bureaucratic culture almost always tends away from ensuring individual liberty, and toward increasing control of peoples’ lives.

    On to your next point:
    “number3) […] her point is the more you benefit the more you should pay. that is not happening in America. an even though everyone gets roads, companies use the roads more than I do.”

    As most thinking people know, those who make the most money already pay the most taxes, so get over yourself. And while we’re focused on your overweening opinion of yourself, have you thought about how “companies” using roads benefits you? Unless you’re in favor of higher prices for everything you buy in a store, you might want to lay off this idea of companies benefiting from road use.

    Later in this paragraph you state: “I personally think those with extra money that they do not need for necessities can pitch in a little more for these things.”

    Here’s my main problem with those who think as you seem to: who died and made you king? You are able to determine the needs of someone you’ve never met? You have the power over someone else’s property and livelihood? You get to decide how other people’s money or property is used? How arrogant is that? And yet I imagine you safely sit in your mom’s basement deciding how other people should continue to support your lifestyle. Here’s where you prove my point:

    “I personally think those with extra money that they do not need for necessities can pitch in a little more for these things.”

    Apparently John Theis knows what all other people should be allowed to do with their property. Let’s face it, unless John Theis approves of what we choose to buy, support, invest in, or save, we’re immoral. Bah. You, sir, are a totalitarian. Next.

    “number 2) yes jack is educated in public schools and so he owes a debt but he pays that debt through taxes. jill makes money off not only her education but also from jack’s so she should pay a larger share.”

    This “owing of a debt” is a big thing with you, isn’t it? Never mind the creation of wealth and capital that Jill achieved. Never mind the jobs shes created for people like Jack. No, you’re focused on tearing down Jill’s success, because she’s “unfairly advantaged.” Here’s an idea–get a better job so you can improve your lot in life, instead of putting the onus of your success on the backs of your betters. Better yet, become one of the “betters” yourself. You can do it in the US of A.

    Let’s move on to your last point:

    “number 4) i believe it is in my interest to help the needy.”

    Then do it! What’s stopping you? Oh, right, you need OTHER PEOPLE’S MONEY to enact your vision. Yeah, that’s moral. Here’s another of your gems of wisdom:

    “first many people simpply can not work therefor if we don’t give them a minimal subsistance living what are they going to do? maybe live with family what if they don’t have any?”

    Many people? How many? Who is “we”? You won’t find a single conservative (which you are not) who is unwilling to help the truly needy. Yet you seem to propose an all-encompassing federal government solution to what is a local issue. Please re-read the Tenth Amendment.

    I won’t quote your continued rambling on this point. Poverty does not lead to crime. Coddling of the destitute is not the answer. I’m all for helping the needy, but let me reach into my pocket of my own free will to do so. In other words, reach into yours first, Champ.


  • October 12, 2011 at 5:07 pm

    @ brennan
    Just so you know I do pay attention to responses which is probably a lot more than you do. It is amazing to me that you consider a Google search sufficient to assume no evidence exists regarding the relationship between democracy and inequality. I assume you have never heard of JSTOR. Robert Jackman and Edward Muller are Political Scientists both now have now passed away but their debates about the facts (something you have no clue how to recognize) about the relationship between Income inequality and Democracy were about the degree of the relationship and the causality not whether the relationship exists. This is an almost undebatable relationship in the social science literature and you can refer the ASR, APSA and numerous other journals to find their articles. The relationship between crime and poverty is also well established in the literature if you bother to read. I recommend a book “The Spirit Level” which looks at inequality and a wide variety of quality of life issues. You can believe it is the coddling of criminals that reduces crime if you want to but the evidence is not there in cross national studies (or when comparing states either for that matter) as far as the rest of your ideological invective filled rant, you simply show what a Neanderthal you are. Given that I know my own situation the probabilities say that I am more educated, have a larger income, and have started more companies than you have. But this is what I have come to expect from simple minded reactionaries like you.

  • July 23, 2012 at 10:54 pm

    If the State is responsible for our financial successes, should it not also be held equally responsible for our financial failures as well?

    Joseph Stack seemed to think so…

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