Rich Lowry on Barack Obama’s Warrenism

by Reihan Salam

As Rich Lowry notes, President Obama has recently channeled one of the central aspects of Elizabeth Warren’s political philosophy, and so I thought it would make sense to link to a discussion of Warren from late last year.

That society is a cooperative endeavor strikes me as obviously true. What disappoints me is the implicit lack of imagination in the president’s remarks: there is a limitless number of counterfactuals in which different norms had taken hold and different public policy decisions were made than in our world, and our political disagreements flow in part from different assessments of which roads we should have taken. One view, for example, is that certain political and economic choices made in the postwar United States that flow from something like the president’s social democratic worldview contributed to, among other things, family disruption, suburbanization, and the calcification of large swathes of the public sector that has stymied organizational and business model innovation. This is my view, and I realize that it is not universally shared. Yet it implies that the proverbial business owner the president invokes may well have been far more successful had we gone in a somewhat different direction. So yes, your success is not your own — your parents, your colleagues, and the largely invisible mesh of norms and institutions that constitutes the global marketplace had much to do with it, as does the state — but this is insipid, as it doesn’t tell us very much about the more interesting, more contested questions over how well our tax dollars are being deployed, if taxes and transfers have any impact on work incentives and if we should care, and whether particular regulations serve to protect the interests of workers and consumers or if they undermine said interests by insulating incumbent firms from competition.

We’re dealing with a specific case of a more general phenomenon, which is that people really like duking it out over abstractions. I’ve usually thought of this as a malady that mostly afflicts the political right, i.e., many of us prefer to shift conversations about the appropriate top marginal tax rate to conversations about freedom. But I think years of George Lakoff have finally taken their toll on the political left, and so conversations about high-speed rail are about the kind of person you are — are you a Europhobic train-hating rube? — rather than conversations about labor laws and the Federal Railroad Administration and how the California High Speed Rail Authority seems to have deep-sixed a promising, cost-effective HSR proposal from SNCF. This is, I realize, an oversimplification. Politics is an adaptive system, and successful politicians learn from experience and do what is necessary to win. Moreover, abstractions are accessible and fun. All the same, I find it extremely unedifying.

P.S. Yuval Levin has an excellent take on the same theme.