Saturday, June 12, 2010

A continuation of the May 24th 2010 entry and comment by Bobby [keywords economics and Plutocracy]:

"ambit"--nice word. I'll try to remember that. Actually, I am not so anti-wealth as I may have seemed. My objection is that the rich have taken control of the government and intend to use it to adjust society to insure that their wealth is protected. This is presented as a function of free enterprise when it is the opposite. Freedom to succeed necessitates the freedom to fail.

I do not begrudge Bill Gates his wealth. I do begrudge the concept of a new aristocracy which is entitled to wealth, not by ability, but by birth.

As far as your concern not with , "income inequality in our country, but the poverty line and the portion of society below it." I am in agreement with you. The ancient Greek conceptualization of an enforced poverty is going too far. As you probably know, it was considered an offense against the gods and your fellow citizens to become too wealthy. A citizen who attained an excess of wealth, as perceived by his peers, was expected to donate that excess to the city in the form of public buildings or the maintenance of one or more soldiers for its defense. To fail to do so was to be seen as an outcast who thought of himself as superior to his fellow Greeks.

I believe instead that society, through its tool of government, needs to insure that the rules are equally and fairly applied to all citizens. No one gets a free pass to wealth or power, not even via your successful parent. Of course, it is human to provide for your children, and, of course, this means that being born to privilege will always have its effect. But this is different from a system which is fine tuned to keeping wealth in the hands of the select few and therefore, inevitably, out of the hands of everyone else.

What we need, then, is to insure that no one, especially children, are forced to go to bed hungry, or to shiver in the cold, or to be denied medical care. We also need to provide an excellent, tax payer supported, education system that reaches at least to Bachelor's level. This is not to deny the existence of private colleges and universities, which will, naturally, be used by the wealthy to give their offspring a boost up in the world. I don't think everyone has a right to wealth, only to the basic minimums which give one the tools necessary to have a fair chance at building wealth.

I have heard the statements that the mere existence of great wealth is a form of social obscenity. This assumes that if someone lives in a state of excess while others live in deprivation, the discontinuity is intolerable. I do not agree. Back in the early 90’s, I recall an author who declared that the only way to live justly was for everyone in the world to accept poverty. In his conceptualization, America, Europe, and Japan would need to accept a sharply restricted diet and life style so that the wealth could be evenly distributed among the world’s people. He acknowledged that everyone in the world would be poor, but felt that this was justified since everyone would be equally poor. [Anyone recall his name or that of his book?]

His reasoning was flawed in several ways. First, he ignored human self interest. Love or despise this drive, it is real and asking people to deny it is to ask them to cease to be human and to become some other species. What species, I can’t imagine, as this is an evolutionary force. Not a natural species then, but something engineered.

Second, he ignored the equal, or perhaps more powerful, urge to provide for and advance the interests of your own children and relatives. Even in social insects, it has been proven that what appears as sacrifice for the good of the hive is really sacrifice for the genes of your relatives. Again, he dreams, as utopians do, of over riding human nature for the sake of his vision of the ideal, or at least the much improved social order.

In short, he imagines that everyone will work for the benefit of others. First Worlders, he thinks, will struggle and sacrifice their own health to feed strangers on the far side of the globe. Utopians often fall into this trap. The simple fact is that we while are a social species and do care about the suffering of strangers, we care much more about ourselves and our children.

Finally, he ignores the fact that in the world he proposed, everyone becomes a peasant. Who is to create the wealth he wants to distribute? We are hugely wealthy because we eat so well, live so comfortably, have so much leisure. Eliminate these and everyone will be equally poor, but it will be the abject poverty of the third World made universal.

To sum it all up- The ability to accumulate wealth and share it with your offspring is the great engine of human desire and effort. Even macaque monkeys have aristocracies of inherited privilege. Moreover, there is a kind of trickle down effect, far weaker than that which St. Ronald of Reagan imagined. When society creates new wealth, a just society allows all members to have a fair chance at exploiting this source. The benefits are not automatic, but must be protected by governmental regulation--effective and nondestructive regulation. We must not allow guilt or an interest in social justice to strangle this natural and invigorating motivation. But, at the other extreme, we must provide a minimum of security and a maximum of potential to everyone, so that this motivation is universally available and utilized for the benefit of all humanity

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