Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Elizabeth Warren v. Thomas Jefferson

My cousin (approvingly) sent me a link to a short YouTube video of Elizabeth Warren---Professor at Harvard Law School, candidate for the United States Senate in Massachusetts, self-described "rock thrower," and central figure in a controversy over an unsubstantiated claim of Cherokee ancestry---giving a campaign speech on someone's porch.

Here is the clip:

The audio is a bit fuzzy, but this is my transcript of the whole twenty-four second video:
Government basically has three functions. One is to provide for the common defense, our national defense. The second one is to put a cop on the beat, to write some basic rules of fairness and transparency to make sure that nobody steals your purse on Main Street and nobody steals your pension on Wall Street. That is a basic function of government.
I presume that Warren does not pull a Rick Perry here and eventually lists the third function of government. Try as I might, I couldn't find a video or transcript of the whole speech, though. Still, the brief clip was enough to raise my blood pressure.

The first thing that caught my ear was the slick conflation between the unobjectionable governmental role in protecting private property, making sure nobody steals your purse or your pension, and a call for government regulation of banks to provide "fairness and transparency."

The second, more important thing, though, is Warren's casual (implicit) dismissal of an important cornerstone of American constitutionalism. Sure, governments can help keep us safe by coordinating things like police protection and some health and safety regulations, e.g. inspecting meat. (Although, even seemingly innocent things, like food inspections, can go too far.) However, government has a more fundamental purpose in the American political tradition: to protect our rights and liberties. This principle was expressed in the Declaration of Independence, drafted by Thomas Jefferson:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.
Maybe Warren's third function of government is precisely this, though I somehow doubt it. Also, perhaps, I am making too much of a brief segment of her stump speech. Yet, Warren's formulation of the basic functions of government seems, on the whole, extremely paternalistic, even authoritarian: We need the government to keep us and our stuff safe, to take care of us. She says nothing about our rights or our freedoms, which, I sense, she cares little about.

To be fair, I think Warren is an excellent scholar, and she has taken some positions on "Washington Reform", like a lifetime lobbying ban for members of Congress and filibuster reform, that I support. Despite these things, though, Warren's authoritarian streak and her confidence that she knows the right way to do things are, in my opinion, the worst and most dangerous characteristics a political leader can have. I hope the good folks up in Massachusetts don't end up sending her to the Senate.

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