I made the mistake of checking my newsfeed only to witness that paragon of Potemkin progress, Elizabeth Warren, indignantly shaming the CEO of Wells Fargo over the bank’s recent cross-selling scandal.
Say what you will about the senior Senator from Massachusetts, love her or hate her, but waking up to an Elizabeth Warren harangue is about as pleasant as a throbbing hangover without the consolation of a previous night’s revelry.
Yet, the crucial distinction is not private vs. public. After all, business often serves the public while government often serves private interests.
Despite having the moral high ground (Wells Fargo did, indeed, defraud their customers), Senator Warren’s presentation came across as effective yet priggish. This is the Elizabeth Warren many progressives have come to know and love. When one progressive writer recently described Warren (and I believe with loving intentions) as a “moral drill bit,” he wasn’t far off from describing her as a useful tool.
A Veritable Swiss Army Knife
I happily welcome this metaphor. Warren is, indeed, a tool – a passionate tool for the populist left, an unwitting tool for government cronyism, a conscious tool of Hillary Clinton, and a devoted tool for the civic religion that is statism.
Though Warren may “speak truth to power” to Wall Street, she often turns mute on some of the worst abuses of government. Like most statists, she sees the speck in her brother’s private eye while failing to see the beam in her own public eye. A whole manner of sins, it seems, are forgiven once one is “serving the public” in government.
Yet, the crucial distinction between government and business is not private vs. public. After all, business often serves the public while government often serves private interests. The crucial difference between government and the so-called private sector is impunity – the ability to assault, kill, and defraud without consequence. The more government and business become intermingled, the more the law becomes a tool of privilege for private and public players alike rather than a defensive measure for the equal liberty and dignity of all.
Elizabeth Warren and those of her ilk seem to think the remedy to crony capitalism is to further empower the very source of such abuses in the first place – state power. When they express righteous indignation in the face Wall Street executives’ impunity but turn a blind eye to the state’s own, it is nothing more than hypocrisy.
Impunity is impunity is impunity, yet sadly there are plenty of hypocrites on Capitol Hill who damn private actors for actions that are par for the course, or even encouraged, in the public arena. However, among this recent bunch of public servants, Elizabeth Warren takes the cake. Her presentations are not only hypocritical and sanctimonious but boldly so.
As warranted as Senator Warren’s dressing down of Wells Fargo’s CEO was, let us consider this “moral drill bit” in terms of both her style and substance.
Warren’s “Progressive” Political Stylings
Warren always seems one monosyllabic utterance away from sounding exactly like a Michael Palin character in a famous Monty Python film. Almost without fail, after asking the Wells Fargo CEO each of her questions, Warren allowed little to no time for answers. No, her committee time would be used for a hectoring lecture come hell or high water. The folks back home expect nothing less, and to be fair, such an approach is not unique to Elizabeth Warren.
Leading questions and political grandstanding are a mainstay at congressional hearings no matter the party affiliation of the inquisitor. Given their incessant prattling and absurd demands, we might as well start calling the whole damn Congress the “Knights Who Say Ni!” If only we could get them to shut-up by simply saying “it.”
That said, Elizabeth Warren has largely proven herself first among equals when it comes to displays of high dudgeon. She needles the Wall Street elite like no one else, and her star has risen accordingly among progressive populists. The more she pooh-poohs the rising stock prices of corrupt bankers, the higher her own political stock rises.
One may say Elizabeth Warren is the left’s version of Donald Trump more than Bernie Sanders ever was. She is notoriously gifted at marshaling invective, outrage, suspicion, and resentment against not only corrupt bankers but a whole class of people – entrepreneurs – who, according to Warren, somehow become rich and successful en masse by not cooperating with others or serving the needs of society.
No, in Warren’s mind, the only way to “pay it forward” to society is to serve the state:
“There is nobody in this country who got rich on their own. Nobody. You built a factory out there - good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on 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... Now look. You built a factory and it turned into something terrific or a great idea - God bless! Keep a 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.”
This consistent schtick has now earned Warren a spot in the progressive political big leagues. According to Benjamin Wallace-Wells in his piece for The New Yorker (the same piece that “lovingly” compared her to a tool,) Elizabeth Warren has been tapped as the “Democratic Party’s insult comic” for her effective belittling of Trump.
Yet, Warren must be careful of hypocrisy by her own progressive standards. By taking on Trump, she is coming to the aid of Hillary Clinton who is much too cozy with Wall Street for most progressives’ liking. In fact, as Warren was lambasting Wells Fargo’s CEO, she forgot to mention the ties of her chosen presidential candidate to the very same bank:
Wells Fargo, both the bank and its foundation, have given generously to the Clinton Foundation over the years. The bank has given between $10,001 and $25,000, and the foundation has given between $100,001 To $250,000. In 2011, former President Bill Clinton gave a speech to Wells Fargo for $200,000.
Of course, one may forgive Elizabeth Warren for doing the best she can to choose the lesser of two evils in the corrupt world of presidential politics, but even forgetting this shallow game of guilt by association with the Clintons, Warren’s hypocrisy still stands based on her own flawed political theory.
Impunity for Me and Not for Thee
So, why was Elizabeth Warren so upset at Wells Fargo anyway?
“The lender opened more than 2 million accounts that consumers may not have known about, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau said in a statement Thursday. Wells Fargo, which fired 5,300 employees over the improper sales practices, agreed to pay a record $100 million fine to the CFPB, $35 million to the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency and $50 million to the Los Angeles city attorney to settle the matter. The San Francisco-based bank also will compensate customers who incurred fees or charges, the agencies said.”
So let me get this straight: a major bank took out accounts in people’s name without their consent and started charging them fees. Many Wells Fargo’s customers not only lost money in the short-term. Unwitting customers who had a line of credit taken out in their name without their consent could potentially have their credit ratings downgraded with long-run consequences. When these aggrieved customers tried to sue for damages, the bank claimed it was immune from punishment given certain contract stipulations.
I agree with Elizabeth Warren that this is deplorable behavior. I agree with her that this is an institutional problem rather than just a few thousand rogue employees. The incentives given by bank leadership clearly influenced bad behavior by the bank’s lower-level agents. I agree justice must be done.
Fraud and Force? Look at Government
Elementary justice would call for Wells Fargo to make the customers they defrauded whole, a refund plus damages. Yet, under the state’s theory of justice, not only must the bank pay back those who have been done wrong, they must also pay the state. Whereas the wronged customers of Wells Fargo will receive a few million dollar pittance in total, the state will receive hundreds of millions of dollars in fines. That sniffs of more than simple justice. That smells more like a protection racket.
When I try to sue the state or seek redress, the government claims to be immune from the basic dictates of justice and the ancient rules of liberty.
Again, it is immoral and criminal when any one person or institution without explicit consent takes the life, liberty, or property of anyone else, and Wells Fargo appears to have committed fraud.
Yet, how can Elizabeth Warren and her ilk be so outraged by this bank’s actions, yet so sentimental about the government’s own modus operandi of force, fraud, and impunity? Why so sad in the face of Wells Fargo’s fraudulent contracts yet so enthusiastic for the social contract?
As deplorable as Wells Fargo’s behavior was in this situation, their actions pale in comparison to what the state does every day legally.
I Never Consented to the Social Contract
Just think of what the government does every day. The government looks at people living in its geographic monopoly (its customers) and presumes their consent, but I personally have never given my consent (and never would) for most of what the government does.
Though I have never consented to programs such as Social Security and Medicare (programs passed decades before my birth), the government persists in charging me fees for their administration. Though I have never consented to the War on Drugs, the government continues to take my money through threat of force only to then turn around and threaten me again with kidnapping and imprisonment for non-violent and often pleasurable behavior. When the government's low-level agents, say the police, overstep the bounds of natural liberty in their enforcement of state rules I never consented to, the police may be sanctioned, but the politicians are never punished for giving the police the incentive to do so.
Who judges the judges? Who guards the guards?
Furthermore, when the government does not take my property directly through taxation, it takes debts out in my name and sees fit to issue more currency by means of its monopoly on the production of money, harming the future credit prospects of a whole generation in the long-run while destroying the purchasing power of millions of Americans’ wages through inflation in the short-term. It then uses these debts to prosecute wars abroad in my name and grant special privileges to big business and other special interests.
Again, I never consented to any of this, and when I try to sue the state or seek redress, the government claims to be immune from the basic dictates of justice and the ancient rules of liberty. Infuriatingly, the U.S. government claims this impunity for the sake of upholding liberty. They trample on our rights to uphold our rights. Go figure.
And this is supposed to be the institution serving as my champion against the likes of Wells Fargo? Where is Elizabeth Warren? What is her opinion on the bloody impunity of the state? Other than demonizing regulators on occasion for not doing “enough,” when has Elizabeth Warren ever struck at the root of the problem that is the state’s impunity?
Where is your indignation now, Senator?
Well, as Senator Warren told libertarian voters nearly four years ago:
“I’ve taught contract law for 25 years and contracts are about private ordering, about parties and voluntary exchanges who engage in transactions that make all of us better off. I love contracts and I think it’s a core part of the libertarian principles. It is an important part. Libertarians believe in social ordering, right? That the social ordering is by private arrangement, so, that they ought to believe in contracts and in fact I think they do.”
Yes, libertarians, or true liberals, believe in contracts based on voluntary consent. Libertarians are all for standards, rules, morality, and community; as long as they are freely chosen. This is not because of some arbitrary or peculiar penchant for personal liberty; rather, the libertarian contends voluntary standards are superior to imposed dictates because standards, rules, morality, and community are predicated on individual consent, e.g. a community that has not been freely chosen is no community at all, at least not a free one; if imposed through aggressive coercion, it is a society of institutional subjugation.
Yet, Elizabeth Warren, as noted above, is a true believer in the “social contract”—that by voting or simply living in a certain area, we have implied “our” consent to the state. Well, by that logic, I suppose Wells Fargo’s victims implied their consent by simply being customers with the bank in the first place.
However, unlike the state, Wells Fargo is subject to sanction from the government protection racket. There will be some semblance of justice served despite the state’s perverse understanding of justice. But, obviously, the government itself is not subject to its own scrutiny in the same way. Who judges the judges? Who guards the guards? How can we trust a monopoly to ever police its own monopoly powers in good faith?
Can One Consent to the Social Contract in the First Place?
If Warren is such a big believer in social ordering by private arrangement and voluntary consent, would she ever deem a contract signed under duress valid? Can one really consent to something, say the social contract, in the first place if one is never given the option to “just say no”?
As Gary Chartier writes in his book, The Conscience of an Anarchist:
“..if there is no real way of opting out, if the state doesn’t provide a way of allowing people not to consent to its authority while remaining within the territory it claims, then there’s really no way of opting in, either. The state treats us as having consented to its authority whatever we do, so we’re not really being given the choice to consent at all. And it’s hard to take seriously the idea that your consent means anything, that it should obligate you in any way, if you don’t have the option of not consenting.”
So, Elizabeth Warren, please continue to call out the massive frauds on Wall Street, but when you do, be sure you call out the state as well. After all, how can we trust an institution that doesn’t play by the same rules as the rest us to keep us honest in the first place?
I am under no illusion that impunity can ever be conquered by impunity. Only someone who loves the state could believe in such a fantasy.
I imagine this is a large part of why so many institutions, private and public, act criminally with impunity today. They have discovered a loophole in the system. If you wish to break the law, make the law a matter of one’s own authority rather than a matter of content as best gleaned by the dictates of a free and equal people's reason and good faith.
If we are to have governance at all, it must be subject to same rules as those it governs. If I, or anyone else, defraud or murder someone, my consent is not needed to punish me. But, if I have done no one harm, what right does any person or government have to my life, liberty, or property? None whatsoever.
I am all for sniffing out unjust force, fraud, and impunity. However, I am under no illusion that impunity can ever be conquered by impunity. Only someone who loves the state could believe in such a fantasy.
Unfortunately, in the midst of this 2016 presidential election, I must admit this bloody delusion is going strong, and Elizabeth Warren is merely a bit player in a timeless struggle of liberty against power. Sometimes she gets it right, but overall, she accepts the basic lie of democratic state power that “we” are the government.
In time, I hope she learns to love liberty and be just as suspicious of the state as she is of Wall Street.