Work and Wealth

It is fascinating to consider that for centuries work was regarded as demeaning and beneath all other human activity. This is the reason that even the seemingly enlightened Greeks regarded slavery as a good thing: the slaves’ role in life was to work and to save the citizens from such demeaning and distasteful activity. Even the great Aristotle defended slavery on the same grounds: human beings were never meant to do work. Slavery is required in order that those who are able to use their minds and engage in creative activity are free to do so.

The slaves, in the case of the Greeks, were the unfortunate victims of countless wars, of course, and the thinking may have been something like this: if these people were not able to win this war or this battle then they are not deserving of genuine human status. I don’t know, but I suspect I am not far off — given some of the things Aristotle said and the attitude of the Greeks generally toward slaves.

Slavery continued for centuries, or course, as did the attitude toward work. It was John Calvin in the sixteenth century who first argued that work was in fact a good thing — while slavery, with no attempt whatever to justify it, continued to make men wealthy in both England and America. According to Calvin work actually was directed by God and enabled human beings to demonstrate how much they relished the life they had been given. In a word, work was a good thing. Indeed, as Calvin insisted: work promotes the glory of God.

For Calvin human beings have no free will. Some are saved and others are damned. Only God knows which of us will be saved or damned. But we must act as if we have freedom and we must glory in our work which is not in the least demeaning; it is glorifying. Not for ourselves, of course, since pride is a sin, but for God. The fact that  a man profits from his work demonstrates that he is among “the elect.” It is a sign that God has touched him, as it were, and made it possible for him to do well. Work requires self-control and the acknowledgment of duty, that one is doing what God wants him to do. It must be approached with singleness of purpose and the determination to glorify God. This is true of the wealth that accrues from hard work as well.

As increasingly money became the means of accumulating wealth, the ethical problem changed from determining the nature of work to the question of whether or not the accumulation of wealth was a good thing.  John Locke, for example, argued that in a primitive society a man has a right to only that which he can make use of himself.  He is speaking of pears and apples. In the case of money, the notion of rights became irrelevant — for Locke. Not, however, for John Calvin who worried about both work and wealth.

In no way did Calvin, or what came to be called “the Protestant work ethic,” condone the gaining of untold wealth for the purpose of the greater glorification of those who are wealthy. For the Calvinist, wealth is a sign that God is pleased, but one must always keep in mind how this wealth came about, Who made it possible. Max Weber, in his study of the Protestant Ethic, notes that:

“Wealth is thus bad ethically only insofar as it is a temptation to idleness and sinful enjoyment of life, and its acquisition is bad only when it is with the purpose of later living merrily and without care. But as a performance of duty in a calling it is not only morally permissible, but actually enjoined.”

Note, please. the strings attached to the accumulation of great wealth:

“[A person] must, like the servant in the parable, give an account of every penny entrusted to him, and it is at least hazardous to spend any of it for a purpose which does not serve the glory of God but only one’s own enjoyment.”

That is to say, those who are touched by God and able to achieve great wealth have a responsibility to increase it by “restless effort.” The greater the wealth the greater the obligation to do good with it. Calvin repeatedly warns against the “irrational use of wealth” and the hazards of losing sight of where it came from.

One does wonder, then, how the founder of the Work Ethic that has taken over the Western World — and increasingly the Eastern World as well — would regard the fact that in this country, at any rate, a tiny fraction of the population has gained the bulk of the wealth and for the most part show no signs of a willingness to share it with others or recognize any responsibilities whatever to guard against “the irrational use of wealth.”

Calvin, and those who follow him, thus rescued the notion of work from derision. But they warned against the gaining of wealth for its own sake. There were always strings attached, duties to be acknowledged and others to regard. Those strings have been cut, have they not?  As Weber notes in his study,

“the religious roots [of the Protestant Work Ethic] died out slowly, giving way to utilitarian worldliness.”

Thus, along with so many of the virtues that modern humans have tossed into the bins of irrelevant, ancient history, we can add the Protestant Work Ethic and any sense that wealth carries with it a burden of responsibility to others. This is sad, indeed.

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True Freedom (Once Again)

Some of you will have read this post from two years ago. But I thought it especially relevant in light of the last post I passed along which takes “radical liberals” to task for going too far in their enthusiasm for freedom. I suspect many of them have not thought about what freedom is. Above all else, it requires restraint. I have expanded the discussion quite bit. I felt free to do so.

Consider, if you will, the Tory philosopher Edmund Burke who expressed a fundamental truth about human freedom. Freedom, Burke suggested, is chaos if it is not restrained by wisdom and virtue.

There are two sorts of freedom according to the philosopher Isiah Berlin: positive and negative freedom. Negative freedom is the freedom we brag about, the freedom to choose any cereal we want from a shelf filled with countless varieties. The freedom to come and go as we please. It connotes, simply, the absence of restraints. But taken to the extreme, negative freedom is “folly, vice, madness.”  Imagine a throng of people trying to get on a tow line to reach the top of a ski hill. If they do not line up and take turns it will be hell to pay. Order makes true freedom possible. Freedom without restraint is chaos. In the political arena it is law that makes freedom possible, as John Locke noted many years ago.

And that leaves the other kind of freedom, positive freedom. This requires thought, “wisdom and virtue,” as Burke suggests. This is true human freedom based on the assumption that we are not free at birth and we are not free simply because our hands are untied, or we have a huge variety of cereals to choose from. Freedom comes with effort, self-discipline, and education. Freedom comes with knowing which of those cereals are worth eating, which are healthy and which will make us obese and eventually sick.

One of the winning cards that was played in the most recent political game we call an election was the freedom card. There are many among us, more than we had imagined, who have felt restrained and held back by “the establishment,” those with money and power who control the strings of government. A man came along speaking in tongues but somehow making clear that if he were elected there would no longer be any restraints, the game would be changed and the disenfranchised would be empowered. These desperate people bought into the lies and empty promises that were tossed about; they huddled together screaming obscene epithets at their political opponents and the power-brokers. All in the name of “freedom.” And they made themselves heard. For better or worse, there are more people who feel free today than they did a year ago.

But that freedom is negative freedom and it may well lead to “folly, vice, and madness,” because there is no suggestion that it will allow for restraint and the tempering effects of wisdom and virtue — two words that have become lost in the din caused by the screaming hatred coming from the mouths of those who demand more and more freedom.

Given that the ideal of the founders to establish a Republic was based on their understanding that true freedom requires wisdom and restraint, as Burke suggested, we can say with confidence that we are growing further and further away from that ideal. Our system of government is in the hands of a demagogue at present who has no sense of history and has exhibited a total disregard for wisdom and virtue. “Restraint” is not in his vocabulary. His promise of greater freedom translates to the removal of restraints and the encouragement of unfettered feelings, including hatred of those who differ from themselves. The freedom he promises is just a nudge this side of chaos.

The Highest Court

In the early part of the eighteenth century Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu, or more simply, Montesquieu, wrote his famous book The Spirit Of The Laws. It had a seminal impact on subsequent political theory and was instrumental in helping James Madison and Thomas Jefferson plan out the United States Constitution. Of special importance was the division of powers as sketched out by Montesquieu. His predecessor, John Locke, had also argued for a separation of powers though he thought the judiciary should be a part of the legislature — after all, who are better to judge of illegal acts than those who made the laws in the first pace?

But Montesquieu thought differently. He thought the judiciary should be a separate power entirely. As he put it:

“Again, there is no liberty if the judiciary power be not separated from the legislative and the executive. Were it joined with the legislative the life and liberty of the subject would be exposed to arbitrary control; for the judge would be then the legislator. Were it joined to the executive power, the judge might behave with violence and oppression.

“There would be an end to everything were the same man or the same body, whether of the nobles or the people, to exercise those three powers. . . “

What Montesquieu is concerned about here, as was Locke, is the loss of freedom among the citizens if those in power above them be not separate and apart from one another, checking and balancing.

Our Constitution embodied those same concerns and insisted that the Supreme Court be a power separate and distinct from the executive and the legislative. Toward this end, the members of the Supreme Court were not to be elected but appointed for life. They were not to be influenced by special interests or to be in the pocket of the president or the Congress. Or special interests, for that matter. For the most part our history had borne this out: the members of the Supreme Court have shown themselves to be remarkably independent thinkers: those appointed by Republican presidents often voting liberally and those appointed by Democratic presidents voting conservatively.

That was then. This is now. We are finding an increasing tendency in the Court to vote in accordance with those who appointed the judges desired them to vote. Or with those powerful interests that have the politicians elected in the first place. We now talk about “conservative courts,” or “liberal courts,” whereas the Court is supposed to be neither conservative nor liberal: it is to be independent of political machinations. That was the ideal and it is what makes for that vital separation of powers that makes the machine of the Republic run smoothly.

When members of the Supreme Court — or any court for that matter — are answerable to special interests or particular political agendas the ideal is shattered and reality comes crashing through in the form of abuses of power and corruption of the first order. We saw this in the case of Citizens United, a recent decision of the Court to allow corporations to have the same powers as individuals despite the fact that they have none of the attributes of citizens. Yet that decision now allows the corporations to spend millions of dollars in order to determine who is elected to political office. Clearly this flies in the face of the intention of Madison and Jefferson — and Montesquieu.

In discussing the Citizens United decision Judge John Paul Stevens, a former Supreme Court judge appointed by a Republican President, noted that:

“Unlimited expenditures by nonvoters in election campaigns — whether made by nonresidents in state elections or by corporations, by unions, or by trade associations in federal elections –impairs the process of democratic self-government by making successful candidates more beholden to nonvoters who support them than by voters who elected them.

“Corporate wealth can unfairly influence elections when it is deployed in the form of independent expenditures, just as it can when it assumes the guise of political contributions. . . The decision in Citizens United took a giant step in the wrong direction.. . .”

That decision, not to mention a number of more recent decisions, was decidedly based on political considerations and special interests rather than an attempt to discover what the  U.S. Constitution determined was in the best interest of the citizens of this country. We see here, then, a clear example of the imbalance that can be realized when the highest court in the land is beholden to the executive or the legislature — or those, other than the voters themselves, who put the politicians into office. This is the very thing Jefferson and Madison were most concerned about. Indeed, it might be said without exaggeration that the country takes a step “in the wrong direction,” as Judge Stevens suggested, every time the Supreme Court decides what a particular political party, or those who support those parties, insist would be in the best interest of a select few of our citizens. The very thing Montesquieu warned us about so many years ago: “[the court] might behave with violence and oppression.”

Worldly Philosophy

Ours is not an age in which we want to have much to do with those who pursue ideas for their own sake; rather, ours in an age that stresses the practical, the “cash value” of ideas that must result in immediate gratification of the pleasure principle. It is said, for example, that the young  should avoid college courses in such things as philosophy, history, and literature because “what can you do with them?” They are impractical and don’t lead to a better job and, presumably, happiness ever after. This has not always been the case. There was a time when knowledge was pursued for its own sake and the practical was an after-thought.  Moreover, as it happens, such things as philosophical ideas can have immense practical payoff. Take John Locke.

I am reading a remarkable book written by Richard Pipes entitled A Concise History of the Russian Revolution. In the early pages of that book, while trying to probe the causes of the revolution in Russia, and indeed the root causes of revolutions around the world, Pipes points out the immense influence of the English philosopher John Locke.

“In his political writings Locke laid down the foundations of the liberal constitutions of Great Britain and the United States. But his philosophical treatise [Essay Concerning Human Understanding] inadvertently fed a very different, liberal current of political thought. The Essay challenged the axiom of Western philosophy and theology that human beings were born with ‘innate ideas,’ including knowledge of God and a sense of right and wrong. This notion had made for a conservative theory of politics because, by postulating that man comes into the world spiritually and intellectually formed, it also postulated that he was immutable. From this it followed that the principles of government were the same for all nations and ages. According to Locke, however, man is born a blank slate on which physical sensations and experiences write the messages that make him what he is.”

The implications of this radical change in the perception of human nature were picked up by such thinkers as Helvétius in France who expanded Locke’s thesis into a full-blown political theory that centered around the notion that human beings were imperfect and the political state was necessary in order for them to become fully human. This implied that government is justified in “far-reaching intervention in the lives of its citizens.” As Karl Marx would have it, “The whole development of man . . . depends on education and environment.” Thus was born social science and close at its side materialism and with it capitalism with all its warts and imperfections. It no longer mattered that man was created in God’s image because God was effectively dead. As a result, man could become anything the governments and their agencies determined he could become. As Helvétius had noted:

“Man is totally molded by his environment. Thus a perfect environment will inevitably produce perfect human beings.  . . . . Good government not only ensures the greatest happiness for the greatest number but literally refashions man.”

The people do not know — parents do not know how to raise their children, for example. But the state knows and we need to simply follow the lead of those in power to realize our full human potential.  Not only does this idea drive the social sciences, but strange as it may seem it has permeated our colleges and universities in our day as growing numbers of radical faculty members openly regard education as the indoctrination of the unformed young into the “correct” way of thinking and acting — namely how their professors themselves think and act. I kid you not. Nor do I exaggerate.

It was especially during the period from the eighteenth century until the middle of the twentieth when this way of looking at things had the most powerful influence outside the academy. It was the intellectual background for the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, and the Constitution of the United States which was founded on the hope that through civil laws, education, and social engineering citizens would develop civic virtue and ignore their own self-interest in order to realize the common good — through which they themselves could become better human beings. Thomas Jefferson had a portrait of John Locke in his study, be it noted.

In any event, this shows us that ideas written down in his closet by the unworldly philosopher can have immense impact on the real world in which most people dismiss such esoteric stuff as “irrelevant” and go about the business of doing business.  And one might think also of the writings of Karl Marx, as mentioned, and Jean Jacques Rousseau. These were “worldly philosophers.” For those who want practical results and are willing to think about why and how those results are to be brought about, it might pay to read what philosophers, historians, and novelists have had to say — and regarding the latter I am thinking about the immense impact of Charles Dickens’ novels in England in the midst of widespread poverty and a diffident Parliament that seemed to be heading the country toward another”Reign of Terror.”

Freedom: A Paradox

Readers of this blog will be familiar with my persistent attempts to understand the nature of human freedom. It seems such a simple concept one might well wonder why anyone would spend time trying to grasp it. But it a slippery notion and one not easy to understand fully. I dare say this  latest attempt will also leave questions. I do, however, note that the complaints folks have that they are not free because they can’t have what they want strike me as totally wrong-headed. This inspires me to forge ahead!

In  the end, it seems to me that freedom requires restraint, and with that paradox I shall begin. Complete freedom, complete absence of restraint, is not freedom at all. It is chaos. Those who scream loudest among us that they are not free because there things they want but cannot have are really demanding a life without restraints at all. What they want it chaos, but they don’t know it. If they did they should shut up. And the man who claims the top political office in this land would stop telling them that it is an unmitigated good thing and a thing that only he can deliver to them. But, then, that claim got him elected. So there you have it.

The point was driven home to me in reading Thomas Carlyle’s history of the French Revolution in which he noted the demand by the people of France for “freedom.” To be sure they wanted equality as well, but above all else, they wanted freedom. Alexis de Tocqueville, after visiting America in 1860, realized that Americans who already had freedom preferred equality, that we would abandon our freedom completely as long as we had equality. God forbid that anyone might have more than I do! But the French people wanted Freedom. They lived in a Monarchy and among wealthy aristocrats who had everything. They had nothing. To make matters worse, they were the ones who had to pay the taxes while the wealthy were allowed to relax in the lap of luxury. Whenever it was suggested that perhaps the wealthy might bear some of the expense of running the ship of state they shouted “No!” and the tax burden was shifted back to the poor — who had little or no money. The results were predictable: the poor became sick and tired of bearing all of the weight of the political state on their backs and they rose up and initiated the “Reign of Terror” — the likes of which humans have seldom seen in their entire recorded history.

In any event, their notion of freedom, like that of a great many of the rest of us, simply meant the absence of restraints, the shifting of the burden of  taxation elsewhere — the ability to come and go as they pleased and to throw off the shackles of poverty and have it all. For a while they seemed to have succeeded, except that it brought with it the constant fear that they might be the next poor soul suspected of conspiring against the political body, sent to prison and there wait for their name to be called and their ghastly and untimely end to arrive. In any event, they achieved something like the freedom they craved but it brought with it the chaos of unrestrained terror. Because if I have complete freedom then so do you — and do I know if you can be trusted or whether, these days, you are carrying a weapon?

If an unruly crowd wants to take a rope tow to the top of a hill in order to ski down and there is no order at all, only complete freedom, there will be chaos. Without law and order we cannot expect to be free. It’s a quid pro quo.Without the willingness to give up some of our freedom we can only expect to be in something resembling what the eighteenth century philosophers imagined a “state of nature” to be — a life that is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” In order to live together with others we must restrain our impulses and allow that freedom cannot be absolute. John Locke saw the paradox and stated in no uncertain terms that freedom requires law and it requires order. We must all restrain ourselves in order to be truly free.

 

Filthy Lucre

For hundreds of years in the West it was deemed vulgar to be involved in the making of more money than was required to live on, including lending at interest or simply hoarding. The notion that one would spend his or her time simply accumulating money and wealth was regarded, not only by the Christian Church but also by those “in the know” as beneath contempt. In Dante’s Inferno, for example, the usurers are placed beneath the murderers because they commit a sin against God, whereas murderers only commit a sin against man. Those who lend money at interest seek to make money appear where there was none before, creating money without laboring in any way, creating money ex nihilo. Only God can do this, it was thought. When man seeks to copy God he has stepped beyond a moral barrier that condemns him to eternal perdition. In Dante’s poem the usurers sit at the edge of a burning pit with heavy bags of gold around their necks, waiting for the gold to increase, presumably.

There can be no doubt that the deep prejudices that folks like Adolph Hitler drew upon against the Jews in Europe was based, in part at least, on the fact that the Jews saw nothing wrong with usury or the making of money while those who did not espouse that particular religious view were told in no uncertain terms that it was contemptible and trifling and even vulgar. There was one Jew, of course, who founded a new religion based on the notion that 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. But he was an exception and has been widely ignored, especially of late. In any event, the accumulation of wealth as an end in itself was regarded as de-humanizing and even immoral.

How did this view change? How did we get from looking down at money-gatherers to regarding them as the most successful people on earth and worthy not only of our respect but even, in some cases, of our adoration? Bill Gates and Warren Buffet are held in high esteem in our culture. We even have elected a president whose only possible claim to that office is that he was a successful (?) businessman. They are examples of the fact that anyone can “make it” in America. The Horatio Alger myth lives on, though it gets a bit weaker when we discover that many were born with a silver spoon in their tiny mouths and we also discover that Balzac was right: where there’s a fortune there must have been a crime.

In any event, the attitude toward “filthy lucre” has changed radically and it is down to people like John Locke, Adam Smith, and John Calvin. The changes in attitude came in two stages. Firstly, the notion that the acquisition of great wealth, once regarded as a sign of grubby self-seeking greed, had been replaced by the eighteenth century, when capitalism was aborning, by the notion that the accumulation of great wealth was an example of virtuous behavior  — a point of view we find expressed again and again in Adam Smith who wrote that “probity and punctuality are virtues that invariably accompany the introduction of commercial relations into society.” And, secondly, it was said that commerce benefits not only the one who engages directly in the activity, but it benefits everyone else around him as well. It has a “trickle down” effect, if you will. Smith worried that capitalism displaced centuries-old morality, but he felt that, in the end, it was worth the trade-off.

But even before Smith we read that John Locke worried about the possibility that in a state of nature a man could accrue to himself more of nature’s bounty than he could possibly need and in the process leave little or nothing for his fellow humans. This was not a good thing. But once gold and silver were taken to be true wealth and John Calvin insisted that the gaining of wealth was a sign of God’s grace and favor, this no longer was a problem; now one could accumulate as much as he wanted whether he could ever spend it in his lifetime or not. It would never spoil and, presumably, there was plenty left for others to accrue as well. So was born the “Protestant work ethic.”

Thus, in our day, we have heroes who would have been pilloried in earlier times. We now regard the making and hoarding of money as not only acceptable but also as a sign of intelligence, imagination, and hard work, worthy of admiration, a measure of success. In the process the accumulation of capital, has become at the very least an a-moral activity, even though folks like Karl Marx continued to regarded it as immoral — because it necessarily involves the taking it way from others who need it more, who earned it, and therefore deserve to have it. This happens under capitalism in the form of the creation of “surplus value” which we have come to dismiss as, simply, “the earnings of capital.” The wealthy see their immense profits as something they have earned and therefore deserve, whereas others (like Marx) might view it as coming at the cost of unethical acts that involve the exploitation of those who actually do the work necessary to produce the wealth in the first place.

But no matter which way we look at it, the making and hoarding or money, no matter how great the hoard, is now viewed in our culture as a good thing. It is no longer “contemptible and trifling,” unworthy of human beings who have been touched by the hand of God. It is no longer “vulgar.” At the very least it is clear that the making of filthy lucre has become “demoralized.” Ethics and economics simply do not mix in our current commodified culture. No longer do the usurers have to worry about  being placed in a burning pit with heavy bags of gold around their necks through eternity. Now they build high-priced, low-quality mini-mansions, swim in their own swimming pools, and drive large, powerful gas-guzzling cars to Church every Sunday for an hour.  And the rest of us admire them and want to be just like them.

Rights and Responsibilities

One hears so much about “rights” these days it suggests that it might be a good idea to see if folks know what the hell they are talking about. When I hear the word it usually means something like “wants.” Thus, when Albert says he has a “right” to that parking space over there what he means is that he wants it. I heard a man from Charleston recently explain why he hadn’t voted in the last election because he “had a right not to vote.” This is absurd. What he meant to say, as so many like him mean to say, is that he didn’t want to vote.

The notion of rights comes from the Enlightenment tradition that informed our own Constitution and was firmly in the minds of the founders of this nation as they worried about separation from the most powerful country on earth at the time. They were concerned about their rights, their human rights. The word has strong moral overtones and suggests, when properly used, that one is morally permitted a certain course of action. Thus, when I say that I have a right to free speech the implication is that it is morally right that I be allowed to speak my mind and others are morally bound to allow me to do so — as long as I don’t shout “Fire!” in crowded theater, engage in hate speech, or promote civil insurrection (or tell lies with the intention to misinform the public).

In any event, rights imply a corresponding responsibility. Rights are one side of the coin, responsibilities, or duties, are the other. But we hear very little about the responsibilities that are intimately bound up with rights, because we have reduced the notion of rights to wants — and wants do not imply responsibilities. Again, the moral connotations are strong in the case of both rights and responsibilities. And in saying this I am speaking about what folks like John Locke and Thomas Jefferson regarded as human rights, the rights that every human being is entitled to simply because he or she is a human being. This contrasts with civil rights, which attach to membership in a specific polity and which can be taken away by those in power, if we abuse them by breaking the law. Our Bill of Rights are civil rights and are not absolute in any sense — even the Second Amendment that guarantees the militia (not every Tom, Dick, and Sally) the right to “bear arms.”

Human rights, as Jefferson says, are “inalienable,” that is, they cannot be taken away. They can be forfeited in that if I ignore the corresponding responsibilities I can be said to forfeit the rights that I might otherwise lay claim to. If I kill someone, according to Thomas Aquinas, I forfeit my right to life and am therefore subject to capital punishment. I myself think this is simplistic, as it is not always clear when a person has killed another and thus never clear when those rights can be said to have been forfeited, but the point is that no one else can take my rights from me. Or you. They are “inalienable.” The principle is quite clear.

What is important to keep in mind when speaking about human rights are two things: (1) they are moral in that those in power can take them but they should not do so. No one should do so. The “should” here suggests the moral nature of human rights. Clearly, those in power can take them from us, but they should not do so: they have no moral justification whatever for doing so. And this raises the second point: (2) Rights have reciprocal responsibilities in the sense that if I claim to have rights this implies that you have a (moral) responsibility to recognize those rights — and I to recognize yours, since we are both human beings. The only humans who can be said to have rights without responsibilities are the mentally infirm and children. In these cases alone those who are not capable of recognizing their responsibilities still have rights because they are human beings. But with these rare exceptions (and these are debatable) all who have rights also have responsibilities and if we ignore our responsibilities we can no longer lay claim to our rights. We might want to keep this in mind next time we hear Albert shouting about his “right” to the parking space. There is no such right.

Locke On Property

One of the more fascinating chapters in John Locke’s Second Treatise on Civil Government explains his position on property. He ties his view in with his doctrine of natural human rights which informed the thinking of our founders as well. In fact, Thomas Jefferson had a portrait of Locke on his walls (one of two I am given to understand) and his “Declaration of Independence” is thoroughly Lockian, as is his Virginia Constitution. In any event, Locke thought that property was a natural right, along with life and liberty. Note that Jefferson borrowed Locke’s phrase which was later changed to “Life, Liberty, and Pursuit of Happiness.”

Property is a natural right because in a state of nature, before there are any civil laws to protect it, we have a right to as much property as we can take and use. Note that “use” is a key here. Locke  places a boundary on this type of acquisition–a person may only acquire as many things in this way as he or she can reasonably use to his advantage, making sure to leave some for the next person. If, for example, I chance upon apple trees in the state of nature I have a right to as many apples as I can reasonably consume before the next harvest. I ought not take more than I can eat or so many that others who might have a right to them as well cannot find enough to eat. That is, I should only take as many apples as I can eat before they go bad; if I take too many apples and some of them rot and go to waste, I have overextended my natural rights of acquisition. Others might have been able to eat those apples. One ought only take so much as one can use. Locke applies these rules to land: a person in a state of nature can claim land by adding labor to it–building house on it or farming on it–but only so much as that person can reasonably use without waste.

 

The invention of money clouds the picture somewhat, but the principle remains the same. The value of money is merely symbolic: it stands for the labor extended in creating products. I have a right to collect more money than I actually need because money does not spoil. But, at the same time, I have no right to more than I could possibly need in my lifetime, especially if it means that others will have less than they need to live on. It’s a “zero-sum” game here — even in the case of money. There’s only so much to go around.

Even John Calvin writing a century before Locke and usually credited with formulating the Protestant Work Ethic, urges restraint — and bear in mind that this is the man who regarded great wealth as a sign of God’s favor:

“. . .many today look for an excuse for excessive self-indulgence in the use of material things. They take for granted that their liberty must not be restrained in any way, but that it should be left to every man’s conscience to do whatever he think is right.  . . but because Scripture has laid down general rules for the use of material possessions, we should keep within the limits laid down. . . . Many are so obsessed with marble, gold and pictures that they become marble-hearted, are changed into hard metal or become like painted figures.”

If we now alter our focus somewhat and think about our own society in which 1% of the people control the vast majority of wealth in the country and the numbers of poor and needy grow daily, thousands of whom have no place to sleep or sufficient food to eat, we can see where Locke might have some serious problems. He was convinced, as was Adam Smith (the father of free-market capitalist theory), that humans would be guided by a moral sensitivity to the needs of others and their natural tendencies towards acquisition would be tempered by that sensitivity, as was urged by such men as John Calvin. In other words, the concept of the “free market” was couched within an ethical framework which stressed human sympathy for those less fortunate than ourselves: people would care about one another out of a sense of shared humanity, as “laid down by Scripture.” The notion that some would accumulate billions of dollars while others around them starve was unheard of, not even considered. It clearly violates the fundamental Lockian principle about the natural right we all have to property. To quote Benjamin Disraeli,

“Riches, position, and power have only one duty — to secure the social welfare of the People.”

In sum, our present situation violates the fundamental moral principle — and Locke’s notion of natural rights was a moral precept, not an economic one — that we have a right only to that which we can reasonably use in our lifetime while making sure there is enough for others who might be in need. On its face it is abhorrent that so few control so much of the wealth in this country and so many of them seem to have no sense of shared humanity with others in need — though there are notable exceptions, such as Bill Gates and a handful of wealthy athletes who make an effort to help those on this earth who go hungry to bed (if they have one) each night. I would argue that those with great wealth have a moral obligation to help others who have less than they do. At the very least, they have no right to more than they require to live a healthy and happy life.

Earning Respect

I didn’t watch this year’s ESPYs where a number of overpaid and self-involved athletes are placed in the spotlight to receive even more attention and applause. I did, however, get a glimpse at the highlights.  Some of the awards make sense and are well deserved, but in general it’s just one more chance for these athletes to be seen on television. One of the awards this year, the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage, went to Caitlyn Jenner, formerly Bruce Jenner, Olympic decathlete who won a gold medal in 1976 and at the time was reputedly the greatest male athlete on the planet. He (She) has changed mightily. You wouldn’t recognize him (her). During her tearful speech, looking for all the world like something dragged backwards through a bush, she thanked her children for their support during her ordeal; she wanted our respect.

I have no problem whatever with Ms Jenner’s sex change. I applaud it. Perhaps it did show courage, though I would look for someone who fought off a seemingly fatal disease if I were making the choice, or perhaps Ray Rice’s wife. What Caitlyn did was something she says she simply “had to do.”  But the problem I really had was when she looked at the camera, mascara running down her face, and insisted that anyone who makes the choice she made should be shown “respect.” At that moment, the little devil on my left shoulder told me, she looked and sounded like someone who absolutely did NOT deserve respect. But that was him speaking, I won’t quarrel. Well, maybe a bit. I want to tighten up the word “respect.” I think she was using it rather loosely.

The word “respect” has reference to rights which have a colorful history. The Greeks never talked about rights, perhaps because they thought themselves superior to all other peoples on earth. Perhaps they were. But the medieval theologians, such as St. Thomas Aquinas, spoke of rights as “God-given” to all humans at conception. This, of course, is the root of the ongoing fight about abortion. But the notion was picked up in the age of Enlightenment by such thinkers as John Locke who dropped the theological overtones and referred to what he called “natural rights,” which were attributed to all persons at birth simply because they are human. Persons don’t earn them and, as Thomas Jefferson was to note, they are “unalienable.” They cannot be taken away. These rights must be respected by each of us or we have no grounds whatever for claiming rights for ourselves. And the notion that certain groups have rights that apparently do not pertain to others, such as women, blacks, or native Americans, is nonsensical on Locke’s view. All humans have rights simply by virtue of being human. Some thinkers have maintained that we could forfeit our natural rights through heinous crimes, such as murder, but in general they are “unalienable.”

But then there are also civil rights, which we have when we become citizens and which we can have taken away by the government, presumably in consequence of a criminal act whereby we are locked up and lose the right to vote or lose our driving license after repeated DUIs. During the years when hell was breaking loose in Stalin’s Soviet Union and Hitler’s Germany, no one had any rights, civil or natural — not even those in power. Anyone at any time could be sent to concentration camps where they were simply annihilated, erased from memory. Anyone who claimed to remember those who were sent away found themselves in the same boat. Welcome to totalitarianism in spades!

In the end, respect, which those with natural rights are deserving of, is a given. We must respect the natural rights of all persons: that’s a moral imperative, the cornerstone of Kant’s ethics. But there is also the respect we earn through our efforts and abilities and which can turn to contempt if we make little effort or squander those abilities and become somehow unworthy of respect. This sort of respect might be attributed to the teacher in the classroom because of her position, let us say. It can be turned to contempt when she shows herself ignorant of the subject or unable to communicate with her pupils. This is the respect we must earn. The question is does Caitlyn Jenner deserve this sort of respect?

The angel on my right shoulder says “yes,” because she had the nerve to go public and share with others her ordeal — and an ordeal it must have been from the look of her. The devil on my other shoulder (yes, he’s still there) tells me she doesn’t deserve our respect because she is making a fool of herself, and in drawing attention to herself — including, so I have read, wearing revealing apparel in public, apparently designed to show that, yes, she does have breasts  — she is simply on an ago trip.  Such people are not deserving of our respect because they have done nothing to earn it. I’m of two minds on this one, but I tend toward the devil’s view.

And as for receiving the Arthur Ashe Award for courage, that galls me a bit, because there was a man of true courage who did whatever he could to promote the rights of his people, who attacked apartheid in South Africa, who was an exemplary human being, and in the end fought with the aids that had been injected into his bloodstream by mistake with dignity and class. Now, there was real courage. Let’s not be taken in by the imitations.

The Predatory Rich

The term in the title of this piece is from Doris Kearns Goodwin’s excellent book, The Bully Pulpit, about Teddy Roosevelt, William Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism. I have referred to her book previously, but I wanted to return to it and share some of the excellent points Ms Goodwin makes. I have noted the rough parallels between the “robber baron” days and our own — specifically, the widening gap between the rich and the poor and the almighty power of the corporations, or “trusts” as they were called then. A critic might well point out that we have made great strides from the days of child-labor and the 12 hour work day. And this is true. But we still have a pathetically low minimum wage and there are folks out there who would love to reverse those strides and take us back to the “glory days” of laissez-faire economics, free enterprise, as they imagine it to be — free from governmental interference and those pesky agencies that put restraints on the obscene increase in profits.

Roosevelt himself was very much aware of the mentality of the “predatory rich” (Goodwin’s words) and that is what most interests me, because while many things have changed I don’t think that mind-set has changed much at all. We can see examples of it all around us as the number of homeless and disenfranchised grow, the middle class shrinks, and the corporations and folks like the Koch brothers continue to amass fortunes. It is most interesting to note that Teddy Roosevelt was himself a wealthy Republican and staunch supporter of capitalism who grew to see more and more clearly the moral depravity that is bred by an unfettered economy when the government looks the other way and a small group of men are allowed to take the reins in their own hands and focus exclusively on accumulating piles of gold. He was, of course, a “progressive” Republican, a reformer who saw the need to put restraints on the greed of those who see nothing but profits and losses, whose world has shrunk to the size of a gnat’s testicle and who seem to have no conscience whatever. Describing his notion of the balance that is needed, Roosevelt noted in a speech to the Union League Club:

“Neither this people not any other free people will permanently tolerate the use of vast power conferred by vast wealth, and especially by wealth in its corporate form, without lodging somewhere in the government the still higher power of seeing that this power, in addition to being used in the interest of the individual or the individuals possessing it, is also used for and not against the interests of the people as a whole.”

One would hope, wouldn’t one? In any event, after McKinley was shot and Roosevelt became president — much to the chagrin of the Republican bosses who tried to bury him in the Vice-Presidency to get him out of the governorship of New York where he was a pain in their collective ass, — he faced one of his major challenges. The miners in Pennsylvania went on strike; as the strike grew in size and violence and as Winter approached and coal became increasingly scarce, he wondered what the Constitution allowed him to do. He was in sympathy with the miners as he was with those poor folks in crowded New York tenements whom he visited, living together, five in the same room where they rolled cigars in sweat-shop conditions struggling to eek out a living. He knew the miners worked 10 hour days from the age of ten until they died at an early age from black lung disease, seldom seeing the light of day. And he knew that the owners were bound and determined to see that their plight did not improve at the owners’ expense.

One of the things that outraged him, as it did so many others, was the arrogance of the owners who had banded together and refused to listen to the legitimate grievances of the miners until they went dutifully back to work. The owners had already turned down an agreed-upon raise of 5% that would have cost them a mere $3 million dollars a year against their estimated profits of $75 million. Their attitude was clearly expressed in an open letter published by mine-owner George Baer which included the following paragraph:

“I beg of you not to be discouraged. The rights and interests of the laboring man will be protected and cared for — not by the labor agitators, but by the Christian men to whom God in His infinite wisdom has given the control of the property interests of the country, and upon the successful management of which so much depends.”

Needless to say, these words threw gas on the fire. They aroused the anger of thousands of people around the country, including the president. And they drew dozens of angry responses from newspaper editors around the country. Eventually Roosevelt was able to work a compromise by some brilliant machinations which drove the Republican bosses mad while reducing his chances of gaining the Republican nomination he so dearly sought. But he knew what was right and he knew he had to act accordingly. And he knew how to use the power of the press against those who ruled the Republican party. And that knowledge proved pivotal.

But what I want to focus attention on is the attitude reflected in those extraordinary words written by George Baer. As one editor noted, it smacks of the notion of divine rights of kings, except the sentiment here, strongly felt no doubt by his fellow fat-cats, is that property owners have a divine right to their property and to what is done with it — regardless of costs in human lives. Indeed, it is doubtful if men like Baer had any idea about the moral costs of their stunted perspective. In this comment he seems to be lost in his own convictions about Christian his right to lord it over others, if you can imagine such a thing.

It is one thing to insist that folks have a right to determine what happens with their property, but even John Locke, who was one of the first to defend free-enterprise capitalism, realized that there must be moral restraints on the amassing of great wealth. He insisted that one had a right to amass wealth only to the point where it interferes with the possibility of others amassing wealth as well. Adam Smith, who wrote the Bible on free-enterprise capitalism, agreed. They both simply assumed that human sympathy, fellow-feeling, would enter in and make the rich realize that there are limits to how much wealth they can collect without making life miserable for others. How naive! On the contrary, Baer’s letter reveals an attitude which we can see to this day among the predatory rich, which rests on the unquestioned assumption (on their part) that they have a right to as much money as they want and any interference with the steps they might take to gain that money are to be squashed, whatever the cost. I give you the predatory rich. You can have them.