What Elizabeth Warren Got Wrong in Her ‘Class Warfare’ Pushback

Too many tax dollars go to seniors rather than "next kid who comes along."

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Conservatives have picked apart Massachusetts candidate Elizabeth Warren's remarks, much cheered by progressives, about an "underlying social contract" that justifies higher taxes on the rich.

They've noted, first and foremost, that Warren's hypothetical factory owner already bears a disproportionate burden of funding the "social contract." (Although, there is the riposte that the rich wouldn't be paying so much in taxes if they didn't have most of the money in the first place.)

[Read 10 Things You Didn’t Know About the Bush Tax Cuts. ]

National Review's Rich Lowry scratches his head at Warren's focus on roads and police protection—things only anarchists would consider antithetical to liberty—and chortles: 

Her remarks and the celebration of them capture the Left's romance with collective action over individual initiative. Most people don't look at a successful manufacturer and say, "Yeah, but he'd be nothing without a surface-transportation network." Although all of us (not just the rich) travel roads and bridges, few of us open factories.

Lowry is right, but here's the thing: Conceptually, Warren wasn't wrong. I think she was trying, however simplistically, to rebut the notion that America would be wealthier and more innovative under a nightwatchman's state. Ron Paul's "libertarian paradise," as Lowry puts it, is a lot closer to Mogadishu and Peshawar than it is to post WWII-America. Had Warren cited government's role in, say, inventing the Internet or the atom bomb, maybe she wouldn't have been quite so vulnerable to conservative ridicule.

[See the GOP's top Senate targets for 2012.]

If conservatives overanalyzed what Warren got right in her speech, progressives missed its flaw.

She said:

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 it forward for the next kid who comes along.

But paying it forward to the next kid is exactly what our "underlying social contract" is not doing right now. It's paying it most of it backwards, via Social Security and Medicare, to the grownups who've already come along, to the tune of $4 on seniors for every $1 on those under 18.

[Peter Roff: Obama's 'Tax the Rich' Class Warfare Is Bad Economics]

Plenty of the so-called professional left have noticed this disparity, and decried it. 

I will hold my breath until a Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate does the same.