Before announcing her bid to unseat Massachusetts GOP Senator Scott Brown, Democrat Elizabeth Warren delivered impassioned remarks on the social obligations of successful entrepreneurs.
Speaking to a small gathering, she insisted that private prosperity rests upon pillars of public investment. "There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody," said Warren, a Harvard law professor, formerly a presidential adviser on consumer finance, and one of Time magazine's 100 most influential people in 2010.
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 …. Now look, you built a factory and turned it 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's comments went viral on YouTube. Bloggers and pundits pronounced on her argument from every angle. Conservatives spied a worrying pretext for saddling wealth creators with burdensome new taxes, while liberals cheered a full-throated defense of government's role in promoting the common good.
We do not wish to referee this dispute. People who share our core theological convictions can have different opinions on the scope of government. Except by insinuation, Warren's reasoning does not entail expansion of federal taxation. Many commentators construed her remarks as endorsing tax hikes, but she articulated nothing beyond the general principle that public expenditure facilitates private enterprise. That corporate titans owe something to satisfy the "underlying social contract" does not determine how much they ought to owe, nor what channels they should use to "pay it forward."
No line of logic irrefutably links the ideal of social cooperation with the practice of "soaking the rich." Yet Warren's statement deserves both nods of sympathy and nudges of reproach. In what it affirms, it exposes a blind spot of the tea party conservatism that many evangelicals espouse. In what it omits, it confirms a blind spot in a strain of secular progressivism that evangelicals rightly reject.
Warren reminds us of our indebtedness to others. Too often, tea party rhetoric fuels a cult of the heroic individual. It sanctifies individual achievement and shortchanges the conditions on which such achievements depend. Human flourishing falters without the protections that a justly governed society provides. Evangelical tea partiers can appreciate this basic truth. There is no need to endorse high taxes or over-regulation.
Our applause for Warren's illustrations is tempered by their narrowness. She fails to include essential nongovernmental institutions. Where are the families, churches, independent schools, hospitals, service clubs, and trade and professional organizations, as well as the free press? Warren commits the besetting sin of secular progressivism: reducing the complex workings of society to the actions of government—in her formulation, "what the rest of us paid for."
But "the rest of us" are more than taxpayers. "The rest of us"—Christians, at least—belong to, and sometimes lead, churches, families, and other "mediating institutions." Have these things contributed nothing to the success of Warren's hypothetical factory owner? If the employees of a factory owner know right from wrong—if they behave honorably, if they do not habitually lie, cheat, and steal—then this may testify to the virtuous influence of pastors and parents.
Evangelicals believe God is sovereign over all. We believe God exercises sovereignty not by manipulating his creatures like so many chess pieces, but by ordaining institutions to which he delegates a caretaking role. Government is one of those institutions. Its responsibilities, though limited, are not negligible. By its movements, peace, prosperity, and justice can either be strengthened or squandered.
Humans are indebted to government for the things it does. Still more, we are indebted to mediating institutions for doing the things government cannot and should not do. Police can lock up crooks who steal the factory owner's goods. But they are ill equipped to cultivate the conscience that objects, on principle, to thievery.
Fairness counsels against chastising Elizabeth Warren too severely. Her remarks, addressed to America's present budgetary crisis, did not purport to resolve every last question of social roles and responsibilities. We can only invite her to supplement a keen awareness of what belongs to Caesar with deeper reflection on what belongs to God—and to the institutions he entrusts with governing a fallen and fractured creation.
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CT covers political developments on our politics blog.
Previous CT editorials include:
Fighting Famine Isn't Enough | Some 2,000 Somalis die of starvation daily. Drought isn't the reason. (November 4, 2011)
Unexpected Political Hero | Even evangelicals who disagreed with Mark Hatfield admired his passionate faith. (October 3, 2011)
Battle for the Bible Translation | Our movement is wide enough to include a variety of methods. (September 2, 2011)
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