I begin with a disclaimer: I have nothing against money. I like money and I am happy that after years of struggle I finally have enough to be relatively worry-free and even able to help others when given a chance. At the same time I am aware that money is a two-edged sword. In the form of the capitalistic economic system it has brought about a higher standard of living for more people than could have been imagined by folks like Adam Smith when he was promoting free enterprise in the eighteenth century. But I do wonder if it has brought greater happiness to a great many people — as Smith thought it would. And as one who read his New Testament carefully for many years in his mis-spent youth, I am aware of the inherent contradiction between the basic principles of capitalism and the values promoted in the New Testament where, we are told, the poor are blessed and it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.
This latter concern was given impetus when, as an undergraduate, I read R.H. Tawney’s compelling book Religion and the Rise of Capitalism. It opened my eyes to the contradiction I had dully sensed. The history of the organized Christian church, and the machinations of “Christians” everywhere attempting to explain away the words of the New Testament have been fascinating — and upsetting. But it wasn’t until the Protestant revolution that the lid came off, as it were, and folks were given a free ticket to claim their Christian affiliation while at the same time pursuing unlimited wealth. We now have self-proclaimed ministers of God like Jesse Duplantis flying about the country in their private $45 million jets and living the good life in their palatial homes after they have preached an inspiring sermon to the many who arrived at the service in the huge amphitheater in their gas-guzzling SUVs.
But I never fully appreciated the tensions that were everywhere apparent during the colonial period between the pursuit of wealth and the preservation of the new Republic. It didn’t worry Alexander Hamilton and his followers who would prefer to have the President and the Senate serve for life — in imitation of the English King and House of Lords. But it worried a great many more colonists who followed Thomas Jefferson in his suspicion that those focused on wealth and prosperity would make poor citizens of a republic built on the notion of the Common Good.
In his excellent book, Rethinking America: From Empire to Republic, to which I have referred a number of times, John Murrin points out the struggles of the early colonies with the problems of great wealth. Many at that time worried, along with Jefferson, that excessive wealth in the hands of a few would plant the seeds of a new aristocracy. After perusing numerous newspapers from the period, Murrin tells us that the colonial attitude, generally, was one of concern, worry that:
“The pursuit of wealth without regard to the public good not only corrupted individuals. It threatened to destroy independence and the American republic.”
“In a capitalist society that generates huge amounts of wealth and want, democracy is ever at risk.”
And this has, indeed, become a larger and a larger problem as today we seem to find ourselves in a “democratic” country ruled by the very rich who pick and choose their politicians as one might pick cherries from a bush, and then tell them precisely how to vote on key issues — lest they lose their high-paying jobs in Congress and state legislatures. It is a deep and perplexing question just how far the pursuit of profits and wealth blinds us to the larger questions that surround the notion of the public good: the cares and genuine concerns of those around us. It is a political conundrum and a serious moral problem that we might all do well to ponder.
I do not have the answer, but the Scandinavian countries seem to have a suggestion for us in the form of Democratic Socialism which they have embraced and they are reputed to be the happiest people on earth at the moment. Raw capitalism is driven by avarice and encourages self-interest in the name of healthy competition — not qualities designed to help a democratic society grow strong, to promote the common good. Curbs on raw capitalism, which we have seen from time to time in this country (and which the current Administration would eliminate), put a bit in the mouth of the beast which it finds annoying but which still make the common good a possibility — remote perhaps, but still a possibility. A good start to much-needed reform would be a fair tax system that closes the loop-holes for the wealthy and for corporations and taxes them at the same rate as everyone else.
Help others with money you say? What was that email address again?
I love your thinking. Income inequality is a big deal in the USA. It is no secret that more peoples are living in poverty today in the USA.
Do you want to know the real reason the US left the UN Human Rights Council on 6/19? That was 2 days before a UN report was to publicly shared with UN members.
Here is the a synopsis of a UN report as per the 6/4/18 Fortune article by Sarah Gray:
“The United Nations released a report last month on the state of poverty in the United States — and it specifically criticized President Donald Trump’s policies.”
“For almost five decades the overall policy response has been neglectful at best,” the report states, “but the policies pursued over the past year seem deliberately designed to remove basic protections from the poorest, punish those who are not in employment and make even basic health care into a privilege to be earned rather than a right of citizenship.”
“The 20-page report follows a visit to the U.S. last year by Philip Alston, the U.N. special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, to speak with local, state, and federal officials, along with members of Congress and people living in poverty. Alston will present his findings to the U.N. Human Rights Council on June 21, which he hopes will help put a spotlight on the issue and spur a debate. In the end, however, the U.N. has “no power to force any government to do anything,” Alston told the Los Angeles Times.”
Yes. I read about the UN report after I had written the post. I tried to make oblique reference to it, but it deserves more than that. You have done a good job bringing that report before the public! Thanks.
It should be understood by now that capitalism and democracy are diametrical opposites. The quotes from Murrin are self-evident: “”The pursuit of wealth without regard to the public good not only corrupted individuals…” In plain language, the pursuit of wealth for any reason is called greed and greed is a sin that takes from those who do not have to fatten those already fat. The other quote: “In a capitalist society that generates huge amounts of wealth and want, democracy is ever at risk.” Let’s call a spade a spade. Any economic system that generates huge amounts of wealth and want is an unjust system. Capitalism rules by perpetually increasing injustice. A true or real democratic system would insist upon and legally enforce, equitable sharing of all the wealth of the “commonwealth” it orders.
My conclusion is, America is not a democracy and never has been but the word has been well used to hide the fact of the matter. Can America be forced into becoming democratic? On a scale of one to ten, I’d give that a zero!
You are right, of course. From the outset this country fought against the accumulation of wealth by the few — and failed in the long run. It took a quantum leap under Reagan with his “trickle down” theory. The country was healthiest right after WW II when the wealthy paid their share, but that didn’t last long and they now pay almost nothing — and complain mightily when they do have to pay. I think Murrin if spot on and you may be right: this country cannot in all seriousness be called a “democracy.” The wealthy choose those that run and tell them how to vote — with rare exceptions who do not usually last long in office. Wealth is in control!
Hugh, thanks for this piece overall, and for your comment in your reply to Sha’Tara about post-war taxes. Tax rates on the very wealthy were often in the 70 percents and once one bracket was at 93 percent. That, along with changes like the GI Bill, helped the country enjoy the most widespread prosperity in its history. Now, alas …
If I remember right, Jefferson applauded the early phase of the French Revolution. Do you know how much of his wariness of the concentration of wealth came from some of the results of that revolution–the violent, often deadly retribution against the wealthy French?
Hugh, good piece. Two thoughts from different angles. In the investigative documentary “I am” the conclusion of social scientists, religious leaders, thought leaders is money cannot buy happiness, but the absence of money can cause unhappiness. The key was to have enough to live comfortably feeding your family and putting a rough over your heads.
As for capitalism and democracy, we have to start with the premise money buys power. America has gotten closer to the oligarchy model we saw at the time of the Robber Baron period. We do have many more protections than before, but there is an attack on those protections, some subtle, some less. The tax law change was not subtle as it exacerbates further the haves and have nots. The purposeful demonizing of unions is less subtle. Just this week, the Supreme Court ruled to weaken public employee unions. And, the GOP oligarchy smiled.
We have more than a declining middle class problem in America. We have a poverty problem. UN Ambassador Nikki Haley balked at a UN report that showed America’s increasing poverty problem. I am sorry Ms. Haley but that report is dead on accurate.
Too many Americans are disenfranchised as a result and they bought hook line and sinker a populist who oversimplified the problems they face and are kicking them with attacks on stabilizing healthcare, welfare programs, retraining programs, etc.
Ironically, America’s headiest period when the middle class flourished is when we were taxed the most and unions were at their strongest in the 1950s. That was the conclusion of the book “Capital.” The other conclusion is that period was more of an anomaly in American history. More often, we give lip service to those classes of people and they fall through the cracks.
We need thoughtful dialogue with data and projections of demographics, revenue and costs. We don’t need hyper-partisan decision-making that does not solve problems. I have said this before, America’s leaders just did worse than ignore the biggest and growing ticking time bomb in our future – US debt. They actually made it worse and patted themselves on the back for it. We borrowed more from our future to make what is now the second longest economic growth period in US history a little better. This is beyond poor stewardship – it is malfeasance.
I gave you more than you probably wanted. I am weary of politicians ignoring major problems and making matters worse focusing on things that are over-embellished. We also need to remember the ideals we say we are all about and strive to achieve them. We are falling short right now.
Your comments are always spot on. I mentioned in one of my comments that the healthiest this democracy has been was just after the Second World War — when the wealthy paid their fair share. I don’t see that happening soon again!
Excellent and thoughtful post, Hugh. The two quotes from Murrin you included are spot on. I have said and believed for the past several months that we are now more of a plutocracy than we are a democratic republic. For several years I have leaned, sometimes heavily, toward democratic socialism and frankly, if we don’t make some changes soon, either there will be a ‘people’s revolution’, or we will settle in comfortably to being ruled by the wealthy whose only priority is their own well-being. Given the spirit of this nation, I am more inclined to expect the first option. But these days, I am so disappointed in my fellow countrymen, at least a large portion of them, in their greed and ignorance, that I cannot predict any outcomes. Anyway, thanks for this post! I will check out that book by Murrin …
I see too much apathy for a revolution! The ones who might revolt are firmly in the Trump camp and unless something happens to him (?) I see us headed toward more and more of the same old same old. Murrin’s book is well worth reading!
You are likely right, and I don’t want to see the country torn apart by blood being shed in the streets. But the country is already being torn apart by the ugly, ugly rhetoric of Trump & Co, and I don’t see how we can just sit back and allow the inevitable without at least putting up a fight. Sigh. I downloaded a sample of the book to my Kindle for my bedtime reading!
Great article and a super discussion! Thanks for the economic primer!
Thanks, John. It is a perplexing issue and a serious one as well.
It certainly is – on both counts, Hugh!