They say you can’t fight fire with fire. Actually, you can. But what you really can’t do - at least effectively - is fight what you identify as fallacious reasoning with precisely the same style of fallacious reasoning. George Will provides a striking illustration of this self-defeating pattern of reasoning in his latest editorial about Elizabeth Warren’s now famous rant at a small fundraising event. Will writes:
WASHINGTON — Elizabeth Warren, Harvard law professor and former Obama administration regulator (for consumer protection), is modern liberalism incarnate. As she seeks the Senate seat Democrats held for 57 years before 2010, when Scott Brown impertinently won it, she clarifies the liberal project, and the stakes of contemporary politics.
The project is to dilute the concept of individualism, thereby refuting respect for the individual’s zone of sovereignty. The regulatory state, liberalism’s instrument, constantly tries to contract that zone — for the individual’s own good, it says. Warren says:
“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 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.
Such an agenda’s premise is that individualism is a chimera, that any individual’s achievements should be considered entirely derivative from society, so the achievements need not be treated as belonging to the individual. Society is entitled to socialize — i.e., conscript — whatever portion it considers its share. It may, as an optional act of political grace, allow the individual the remainder of what is misleadingly called the individual’s possession.
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, aka 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.
The “collectivist” straw woman against whom Will rails is simply a traditional liberal.Will goes on to write derisively about 1960s-era “new leftists” like Kenneth Galbraith, with their views about “false consciousness” implanted in individuals by corporate advertising, as if that has anything even remotely to do with Warren’s (or Obama’s) view that the rich should be taxed at slightly higher rates - closer to the rates at which the economy was actually doing much better in the past! The “collectivist” straw woman against whom Will rails is simply a traditional liberal, one who seeks to empower all individuals - rather than just a privileged few - by providing opportunities for self-improvement through public institutions. Anyone who identifies such liberalism with collectivism (or communism, or even socialism) needs to re-take Political Science or History 101. Will no doubt knows better, and is intentionally engaged in conservative rhetoric aimed to mislead the ill-informed.
What is sad is that Will is clever enough to engage in non-fallacious debate with his political adversaries, and both he and other conservatives surely have logically respectable arguments they could make in favor of their policy positions. Why don’t they bother to make them in such widely read editorials?