In one of his travel notes written in 1788, Thomas Jefferson wrote “What a cruel reflection, that a rich country cannot long be a free one.” He was even then concerned about America’s preoccupation with the accumulation of wealth as an end in itself. The reason wealth interferes with freedom is to be found in the captive nature of avarice as Jefferson saw it. In fact, Aristotle had the same thought a thousand years before Jefferson when he attributed the breakdown of aristocracies to the accumulation of wealth; the aristocracy degenerated into an oligarchy, rule by the rich. The problem, as Aristotle saw it was that the rulers lose sight of the common good out of a growing concern with their own self-interest.
There are lessons here for us to learn, of course, as there are when reading the words of any great mind. And Aristotle and Jefferson were two of the greatest minds that ever lived. We like to think we live in a Democracy, even though the founders saw it as a “Republic” governed by representatives, not the people themselves. The people were not thought to be wise enough to govern themselves, though through education they would at least come to recognize those around them who were worthy of elected office. And some would become well enough educated to lead the others. This is why Jefferson established the University of Virginia: he saw education as essential even in a Republic, because those who remained in school long enough would be recognized as able and elected to office. The cream would rise to the top. Jefferson envisioned a “natural aristocracy” governed by the brightest and best minds the country could produce. Madison tended to agree with him — as he did on so many other issues. The idea is originally Platonic.
But it is clear that, as Aristotle foresaw, our “natural aristocracy” has degenerated into an oligarchy. It has been called a corporate oligarchy (“corporatocracy”) given the fact that those with great wealth are the ones, in fact, who choose those who govern and later tell them how to govern. And the wealthy are clearly preoccupied with their own self-interest in the form of maximum profits. So Aristotle was correct in his notion of what factors lead to the degeneration of an aristocracy, even though he saw an aristocracy in a different light than Jefferson did. And Jefferson was also correct in saying that a rich nation could not long remain a free one. Let me explain.
By world standards ours is a rich country, though it is the top 1% who have the bulk of the wealth. But our conviction that we are one of the freest nations on earth is based on the misperception of what freedom is: that it is a function of the number of choices we have rather than our ability to decide for ourselves what is worth choosing. As long as the wealthy continue to control the governing body, not to mention the media, whereby they divert attention with entertainment and games, we will continue to maintain the illusion that we are free when, in fact, we are not. So Jefferson was indeed correct.
It is not likely that the wealthy will give up their wealth. Thus, if the nation is to regain any semblance of its freedom the only hope is education whereby citizens come to know what freedom is and realize that it does not come down to the number of loaves of bread on the shelves at the local box store, or the number of cars at the dealership. Freedom is a function of knowing which bread is healthy and which cars are the lemons: it is a function of knowledge and the capacity to think about what we know. Job training won’t get us there, though it is what the corporations want us to buy into: it is only through education properly conceived that we can realize this capacity. That is why a liberal education is vital to our political system as originally conceived: it sets us free and keeps us free.