William Galston tries to walk back Elizabeth Warren’s claim that nobody in this country got rich on their own. He argues that George Will and other conservative critics are imputing to the Democratic Senate candidate a collectivist impulse she has not evidenced.
Without the enabling framework that only government can create, individuals cannot securely enjoy the fruits of their endeavors. Every return on investment, then, is actually a return on two sources of investment, one reflecting individual choice, the other public decisions. Taxation is not theft; nor is it, as the late philosopher Robert Nozick once put it, “on a par with forced labor.” Rather, it reflects the return on the public investment to which nearly everyone contributes. It does not rest on the claim that all resources are collective and that individuals receive what is theirs as an act of grace, but rather on the more modest claim that we all owe something in return for the collective goods without which our individual striving cannot succeed.
Even this doesn’t necessarily justify a steeply progressive tax code or even establish when someone has paid their fair share once they’ve paid a certain minimum, as Gallston himself concedes. But more importantly, everyone gets the public benefits Warren specifically mentions. Not everyone can build an Apple, a Boeing, or a factory. Instead of acknowledging this, Warren seems to be saying that such people are even more indebted to the government for the provision of public roads. This is surely backwards.
As I pointed out in my column on Steve Jobs, it can be equally true that the rest of us enjoy a return on the innovators’ investment , realizing collective benefits without direct government involvement on behalf of the public good.