Wealth, Power, and Wall Street

Robert Heilbroner wrote a classic study of capitalism. In that book he notes that the competition among the wealthy in a capitalist society amounts to a Hobbesian state of nature in which there is war of all against all. This war is being carried on not only among those with wealth but also between those few and the rest of the nation which must be content with the leftovers that trickle down. The results in the case of present-day U.S. are appalling: with the tax breaks that were voted in during the Bush-era, the uneven distribution of wealth in this country has become positively obscene.  There has been a 36.1% drop in the wealth of the median household since the peak of the housing bubble in 2007. As of that year, the top 1% of households owned 34.6% of all privately held wealth, and the next 19% held 50.5%. This means that the remaining 15% of the wealth in this country was shared by 80% of the people.  And the problem has gotten worse. Why so?

Because money is power and those in power invariably seek more power. What has happened, as Heilbroner shows, is that capitalism breeds a culture in which wealth is not collected for its own sake, but for the sake of gaining more wealth. While those who control the wealth in this country compete among themselves for more and more of the same, the poor get poorer and the middle class disappears into the impoverished class.

Those who are wealthy dream about days gone by when free enterprise capitalism was the rule and government kept out of the business of making money; these people are deluded. This country has never embraced free market capitalism unfettered by governmental restraints — except, perhaps, during and just after the Civil War when the industrial revolution was taking off in this country. This ended abruptly when a series of antitrust laws were passed toward the end of the nineteenth century, introduced by people like Senator John Sherman, that were designed to restrict the growth of capital in the hands of the few. And those same people who moan about the coming of “socialism” (a word they don’t understand) refuse to acknowledge that government controls are the only thing standing between the dwindling middle-classes and increasing poverty — and powerlessness — for the vast majority of citizens in this country.

Or they just don’t care: it is part of what the mania of power is all about.  Newt Gingrich makes the snide remark that those who would occupy Wall Street should get a job after taking a bath and his comment is met with snickers and loud applause. These are the words of a man with great wealth who has nothing but disdain for the many who do not and whose lack of wealth he sees simply as a lack of initiative. This is both callous and absurd on its face. The Occupy Wall Street movement makes perfect sense and should be supported by all who care about fairness and justice for all of the citizens in this country, including those who would be its President. It is the voice of the people who are, we are told, the ultimate source of power in a democracy.

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2 thoughts on “Wealth, Power, and Wall Street

  1. I am reading some old posts of yours before I started following your blog. Unfettered capitalism is not a panacea as you note. This is one of the reasons I do not buy into the Libertarianism ideal. History shows that people with the wealth will take advantage of those without. It is human nature’s ugliest side. That is the key reason regulations are in place, so that people are treated fairly. Good post.

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