How Elizabeth Warren Used Adam Smith Against the Right

Since Elizabeth Warren declared her intentions to challenge Scott Brown on his Senatorial re-election bid, she has become increasingly vocal – not an uncommon strategy for a blossoming politician. What was uncommon, however, was what she chose to say, or more specifically, whom she chose to reference at a recent gathering of supporters.

“There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own – nobody. You built a factory out there – good for you. But I want to be clear: you moved your goods to a 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. 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.”

Despite its refreshing honesty, this might not seem like a radical position from a Democratic candidate until you consider its inspiration: Adam Smith.

Yes, that Adam Smith – beloved by laissez-faire capitalists for his economic metaphor, the invisible hand. From his 1776 work “An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations”:

“The woolen-coat, for example … is the produce of the joint labor of a great multitude of workmen. The shepherd, the sorter of the wool, the wool-comber or carder, the dyer, the scribbler, the spinner, the weaver, the fuller, the dresser, with many others, must all join their different arts in order to complete even this homely production. How many merchants and carriers, besides, must have been employed in transporting the materials from some of those workmen to others who often live in a very distant part of the country! How much commerce and navigation in particular, how many ship-builders, sailors, sail-makers, rope-makers, must have been employed in order to bring together the different drugs made use of by the dyer, which often come from the remotest corners of the world!”(1)

There is a clear connection between the two passages. Both explain the cooperation required of businesses to build and sustain a functioning economy, cooperation with both government and workers. Both explain the importance of economic community.

Smith's writing being used by a member of the left is as beautifully ironic as a Christian fundamentalist quoting Ayn Rand. But the central message is as relevant today as it was in 1776, with Occupy protests beginning to gain mainstream attention across the country. Wall Street, where the first occupation began, is indeed a public street and corporations' profits are the product of countless workers, many of whom benefit from government programs and have never set foot inside a boardroom.


1. Smith, Adam. “Of the Division of Labor,” Google Books. Web. 21 September 2011.