A Contract on the Rich

In the Massachusetts senate race Elizabeth Warren has repeatedly referred to a "social contract" that obligates the rich to transfer a greater share of their income to the poor. According to Warren, this conception of the social contract has shaped American society from the very beginning.

"There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own," Warren has declared. The state may allow its more affluent citizens to keep a portion of their wealth, but "part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward to the next kid who comes along."

That same argument -- that the collective has a claim on privately earned wealth -- has been showing up a lot these days. It's an argument with a long history among progressives, traceable back to turn-of-the-century leftists such as Eugene Debs, who ran for president on the Socialist Party ticket no less than five times. "We are on the eve of universal change," Debs declared in 1897, and continued declaring it until his death in 1926. That message of radical transformation has been the basis of the progressive politics for a century, from Teddy Roosevelt to Wilson, FDR, Johnson, Carter, and now Obama.  Every time the left gains power, it is dusted off and put to work.

The problem is, despite what Warren and her liberal colleagues say, the "social contract" of wealth redistribution does not appear within America's founding documents. It is not there in the Declaration of Independence, or in the Constitution, for the simple reason that it played no part in the way the Founders thought about America. There is not a single phrase in the Constitution of the United States that even remotely suggests that the state has the right to tax private wealth for the purpose of redistribution. In fact, the Constitution explicitly forbids this encroachment on private property.

That does not seem to trouble a Harvard professor of law such as Elizabeth Warren. Perhaps that is because her interests do not appear to include Constitutional Law. They tend more toward populist causes like "Women, the Elderly, and the Working Poor in Bankruptcy." Ms. Warren seems more concerned that the rich must be made to "pay their fair share" than just about anything else. But she didn't find that idea in the document that is the basis of our nation's laws.

To my knowledge, neither Warren nor her comrade on the left, Barack Obama, has ever spoken publicly about the Constitutional guarantee of the right to private property. Instead, they speak constantly of seizing wealth via taxation and redistributing it to their political supporters.

It's not just politicians who are coming out for the progressive social contract. For reasons that seem inscrutable, Warren Buffett has for many years been a supporter of higher taxes on the rich. And Buffett is not the only traitor to his class out there. George Kaiser, the Tulsa oil and gas billionaire, has also embraced redistribution. America, he informs us, has always been "the land of equality of opportunity."

Notice how Kaiser's statement subtly alters and revises the idea of America that prevailed from the founding to recent times. In the "Declaration of Independence," Thomas Jefferson listed "the pursuit of Happiness" as an "unalienable Right." But that pursuit was not based on "equality of opportunity" abetted by wealth redistribution.

Indeed, Jefferson's justification for separation from Britain was based in part on the sacred right of property -- precisely the opposite of the "social contract" as conceived by leftists like Warren and Obama.  Independence was justified, Jefferson wrote, because of "a long train of abuses" committed against the colonies.  Those abuses, which the Declaration expounds in considerable detail, include the expansion of government offices that resulted in a tax burden on the people that has "eat out their substance."  The Crown has imposed taxes "without our consent," prohibited trade, "plundered our seas" and "ravaged our coasts."

In other words, the Declaration defined government overreach as an evil of such magnitude that it that justified revolution.  Needless to say, nothing in the Declaration even hints of the right of government to engage in wealth redistribution.  In Jefferson's mind, as in that of most of the Founders, the "pursuit of Happiness" was a God-given right, but the left's notion of "equality of opportunity" was not.

America, in fact, has never been the land of equality of opportunity. It was assumed by the Founders, and it has always been assumed within our civilization, that some individuals possess greater gifts, greater motivation, greater ambition, and, yes, greater advantages of upbringing than others, and that as a result they may achieve a greater degree of success, if not always of Happiness.  For the Founders, America was indeed the land of opportunity, but it was never conceived as the land of "equal opportunity."  And there was never any suggestion that equality, either of opportunity or of outcomes, should be enforced by government.  

Kaiser, like all leftists, misreads the record of America's founding.  He inserts a European conception of equality of outcomes in place of the traditional conception of America as a land of opportunity -- a conception that implies the possibility of success or failure.

Preserving opportunity, for the Founders, meant something quite different. Opportunity was viewed as deriving from liberty, and liberty entailed the prevention of tyranny, the guarantee of individual rights, and the safeguarding of the rule of law and of the rights of private property. The chief means of protecting these ends was limiting the scope of government.

Unfortunately, these guarantees of liberty, so closely tied to the conception of America as a land of opportunity, are held up to contempt by those on the left. The assault on liberty now underway is precisely what destroys opportunity. With politicians like Warren and Obama guilty of their own "long train of abuses" predicated on seizure and redistribution of wealth, the very basis of our liberty as the Founders conceived it is in jeopardy. The left's conception of the social contract is at the heart of this assault on liberty.

There is indeed a social contract that can be traced to the founding of our democracy, but it is the opposite of the left's idea of "paying it forward."  The true social contract affords for the pursuit of happiness by protecting the free market and the rights of citizens from the very forms of government abuse that Warren, Obama, and other leftists are advancing. It protects the opportunities available to individuals by restricting the scope and power of government.

Jeffrey Folks is the author of many books and articles on American culture, most recently Heartland of the Imagination (2011).

In the Massachusetts senate race Elizabeth Warren has repeatedly referred to a "social contract" that obligates the rich to transfer a greater share of their income to the poor. According to Warren, this conception of the social contract has shaped American society from the very beginning.

"There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own," Warren has declared. The state may allow its more affluent citizens to keep a portion of their wealth, but "part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward to the next kid who comes along."

That same argument -- that the collective has a claim on privately earned wealth -- has been showing up a lot these days. It's an argument with a long history among progressives, traceable back to turn-of-the-century leftists such as Eugene Debs, who ran for president on the Socialist Party ticket no less than five times. "We are on the eve of universal change," Debs declared in 1897, and continued declaring it until his death in 1926. That message of radical transformation has been the basis of the progressive politics for a century, from Teddy Roosevelt to Wilson, FDR, Johnson, Carter, and now Obama.  Every time the left gains power, it is dusted off and put to work.

The problem is, despite what Warren and her liberal colleagues say, the "social contract" of wealth redistribution does not appear within America's founding documents. It is not there in the Declaration of Independence, or in the Constitution, for the simple reason that it played no part in the way the Founders thought about America. There is not a single phrase in the Constitution of the United States that even remotely suggests that the state has the right to tax private wealth for the purpose of redistribution. In fact, the Constitution explicitly forbids this encroachment on private property.

That does not seem to trouble a Harvard professor of law such as Elizabeth Warren. Perhaps that is because her interests do not appear to include Constitutional Law. They tend more toward populist causes like "Women, the Elderly, and the Working Poor in Bankruptcy." Ms. Warren seems more concerned that the rich must be made to "pay their fair share" than just about anything else. But she didn't find that idea in the document that is the basis of our nation's laws.

To my knowledge, neither Warren nor her comrade on the left, Barack Obama, has ever spoken publicly about the Constitutional guarantee of the right to private property. Instead, they speak constantly of seizing wealth via taxation and redistributing it to their political supporters.

It's not just politicians who are coming out for the progressive social contract. For reasons that seem inscrutable, Warren Buffett has for many years been a supporter of higher taxes on the rich. And Buffett is not the only traitor to his class out there. George Kaiser, the Tulsa oil and gas billionaire, has also embraced redistribution. America, he informs us, has always been "the land of equality of opportunity."

Notice how Kaiser's statement subtly alters and revises the idea of America that prevailed from the founding to recent times. In the "Declaration of Independence," Thomas Jefferson listed "the pursuit of Happiness" as an "unalienable Right." But that pursuit was not based on "equality of opportunity" abetted by wealth redistribution.

Indeed, Jefferson's justification for separation from Britain was based in part on the sacred right of property -- precisely the opposite of the "social contract" as conceived by leftists like Warren and Obama.  Independence was justified, Jefferson wrote, because of "a long train of abuses" committed against the colonies.  Those abuses, which the Declaration expounds in considerable detail, include the expansion of government offices that resulted in a tax burden on the people that has "eat out their substance."  The Crown has imposed taxes "without our consent," prohibited trade, "plundered our seas" and "ravaged our coasts."

In other words, the Declaration defined government overreach as an evil of such magnitude that it that justified revolution.  Needless to say, nothing in the Declaration even hints of the right of government to engage in wealth redistribution.  In Jefferson's mind, as in that of most of the Founders, the "pursuit of Happiness" was a God-given right, but the left's notion of "equality of opportunity" was not.

America, in fact, has never been the land of equality of opportunity. It was assumed by the Founders, and it has always been assumed within our civilization, that some individuals possess greater gifts, greater motivation, greater ambition, and, yes, greater advantages of upbringing than others, and that as a result they may achieve a greater degree of success, if not always of Happiness.  For the Founders, America was indeed the land of opportunity, but it was never conceived as the land of "equal opportunity."  And there was never any suggestion that equality, either of opportunity or of outcomes, should be enforced by government.  

Kaiser, like all leftists, misreads the record of America's founding.  He inserts a European conception of equality of outcomes in place of the traditional conception of America as a land of opportunity -- a conception that implies the possibility of success or failure.

Preserving opportunity, for the Founders, meant something quite different. Opportunity was viewed as deriving from liberty, and liberty entailed the prevention of tyranny, the guarantee of individual rights, and the safeguarding of the rule of law and of the rights of private property. The chief means of protecting these ends was limiting the scope of government.

Unfortunately, these guarantees of liberty, so closely tied to the conception of America as a land of opportunity, are held up to contempt by those on the left. The assault on liberty now underway is precisely what destroys opportunity. With politicians like Warren and Obama guilty of their own "long train of abuses" predicated on seizure and redistribution of wealth, the very basis of our liberty as the Founders conceived it is in jeopardy. The left's conception of the social contract is at the heart of this assault on liberty.

There is indeed a social contract that can be traced to the founding of our democracy, but it is the opposite of the left's idea of "paying it forward."  The true social contract affords for the pursuit of happiness by protecting the free market and the rights of citizens from the very forms of government abuse that Warren, Obama, and other leftists are advancing. It protects the opportunities available to individuals by restricting the scope and power of government.

Jeffrey Folks is the author of many books and articles on American culture, most recently Heartland of the Imagination (2011).

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