Paying forward and the politics of opportunism

The Pinkfoot are in ecstasy, as Elizabeth “Rampant Rabbit” Warren turns her rhetorical arrows on the Book of Palefaces and its Chief Sugarmountain.

I am not a fan of either Zuckerberg or his Facebook monster media platform, and I am not a particularly spiteful enemy of Mrs Warren, and I rather like the Democrats. Great fan of Obama’s, too.

What I really hate are populist myths, and Mrs Warren is a bit of an abuser on that account. Not more than most Law School professors, mind you, who walk a fine line between teaching courtroom procedure and sticking their noses into social critique — which they should not do at all. The Law is blind, remember?

Not going into the details of her career and its undoubtedly many merits and achievements, let me just dissect one of her more famous pronouncements:

“There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. … 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; you were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory, and hire someone to protect against this, because of the work the rest of us did. Now look, 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 forward for the next kid who comes along.”

Just to get it out of the way, “god bless”… It is high time American politicians, especially Democrats, ceased pandering to the religious prejudices of part of the population. The loudest part of the population, granted, but not all of it. So it is profoundly undemocratic to say “god bless” when feeding off the public trough. Last I read, the divine right of tyrants had been sort of revoked.

Right, from the beginning. In the beginning, right there after the Great Plague liquidated Middle Age Enterprises, Inc, there was feudal agriculture. Mercantile this and that intervened, along with colonialism and the seeds of Empire. One thing was conspicuously missing, though: infrastructure.

I mean, empire-wide road building to lay-line accuracy went out of fashion with the Romans. Mediaeval and Early modern armies marched on their feet and on the empty stomachs of the peasants they robbed, raped and murdered on the way. Until about 1650, give or take, ox-carts on rutted tracks was about as fast as you could move goods on land. Even the notable canals built during the early Renaissance were not exactly massive networks. Then came Westphalia, the nation-state was created and some (relative) stability allowed business to seek the best resources.

At the start of the Industrial Revolution, machines were driven by water. Water courses with better heads, or room to build millponds, are rarely found in cities. Old cart tracks, I mean trunk roads, evolved to avoid the geography that tends to favour the mills. What to do? There is this great waterfall, that would drive all the looms you need, but no road to get there, and no workers nearby.

Bingo! If the Romans could build roads, so can you! Even better, if you want bigger loads to move faster and not have to feed oxen you’d rather eat, build canals. Then build basic housing close by the mill, so that your workers don’t have to spend all day trekking home and back. Get a couple of vicars to open a school to keep the kids busy and to help train your future workforce, and a few nuns to keep the vicars busy and treat industrial accidents and TB.

See, not such a chicken and egg situation, after all. It was business that got the infrastructure game going.

Keeping the peace and preventing larceny? Pinkerton’s predecessors come to mind — after all, urban police forces were not properly organised before the XIX century. Fire brigades? There were certainly volunteers for that — government came very late to the game of putting out fires, out of a reasonable fear that fire stations would become the nucleus for independent social welfare.

Finally, to paying it forward to those poor kids. Businesses pay taxes — all sorts of taxes and licences and permits and compulsory contributions to this and that fund. So do their suppliers, and so do their employees. Goods sold pay taxes, and employ other businesses until they get to the final consumer. All pay taxes, thus fulfilling, twice over, their obligations under any form of social contract you care to mention.

There is a danger: bother business too much with this “you have an obligation” stuff and business may decide it is not worth the trouble, and either move or fold. What of the poor kids, then?

Government is paid to maintain welfare and an equitable trading environment. It is not the business of business to ‘have a heart’ or to be charitable. Business only has to be honest and follow fair regulations. It is not the business of government to direct business, but to ensure a level playing field, keeping everybody honest.

When you have proper regulation and enforce honesty, wealth naturally increases and spreads. Spreading wealth creates self-actualisation (re Maslow) which makes people more charitable, in terms of lending a hand to grow others, not simply giving.

In a fair society there need be no guilty consciences to be appeased by charity. A fair society has an effective safety net, to allow people to deal with personal and circumstantial problems, to change jobs in search of a better fit to their skills and lifestyle, to give everyone the security to live life without fear. Less stress leads to more productivity, and everybody is a winner. But the absence of a safety net, or its shortcomings, lie entirely in the hands of government. Where is all that tax money going, then?

Conclusion: by stating obvious platitudes in a misleading way, Mrs Warren is committing a Trumpist sin, appealing to fake disgruntlement, to garner populist votes.

Government is not a perpetual criminal indictment — or it should not be — and Congress is not a permanent courtroom — it better not be. So, Mrs Warren and Democrats in general, have a heart. Pay it forward to all our kids by cutting short the cycle of populist demagoguery and official complacency that has worked so well to keep incompetent buffoons in power.

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