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Elizabeth Warren's conservatism

Posted by Rob Anderson  September 22, 2011 05:30 PM

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Elizabeth Warren’s nascent campaign to win the Democratic nomination for the US Senate in Massachusetts has already launched its first Internet phenomenon. In this oft quoted video, Warren makes the point that “nobody in this country has gotten rich on their own.” It has been praised as a succinct statement of liberalism and attacked as “Marxism, American-style.” Both of these criticisms miss the point. Warren’s statement is not liberal, let alone Marxist. In fact, it is a fundamentally conservative statement of belief in a thing called society.

Warren’s statement sets aside a vision of society in which we all owe a series of obligations to each other. A factory owner owes a debt to those who finance the roads that transport his goods to market and to "pay forward for the next kid that comes along." But her conception of society is not one in which the state plays an active or leveling role redistributing income; after all if “you built a factory,” you are still entitled to “a big hunk” of its profits, in Warren’s folksy words. The revenues should not be redistributed to promote equality in income — it assumes that because its your factory and your idea, you have a right to profit from it. A commitment to free market economics is assumed unquestionably.

Instead, Warren’s philosophy seems little different from the oft-quoted cliché of John Donne, a conservative himself, that “no man is an island, entire of himself.” She invokes the concept of a “social contract” to which we have all agreed, and sets our differing obligations to society, an idea that winds through all of modern political thought. But, interestingly, her fears about what happens when this contract falls apart reverts to the Hobbesian basics of “marauding bands” looting and pillaging.

Although some on the right attack Warren as some sort of leftist, her agenda in creating the Consumer Finance Protection Agency and advocating for bankruptcy reform is simply to remedy the flaws in which free markets have gone off the tracks. It is not a statist philosophy but one that encourages individual home ownership and financial stability. It reinforces the traditional conservative ideas of building a society in which we all mutually are owed, and owe, obligations. The real controversy should be that the political discourse has shifted so much of late that such a deeply conservative and traditional idea could be considered remarkable at all.

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ABOUT THE ANGLE Online commentary and news analysis from the Boston Globe. The Angle is produced by Rob Anderson and Alan Wirzbicki. You can follow Rob on Twitter at @rcand.

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