Better Off?

The theme of this year’s Republican National Convention centered around the question “are you better off today than you were four years ago?” While I did find Mark Cuban’s response to the question most interesting, I realize (as he must) that the question is rhetorical: the Republicans are convinced that we are not “better off” than we would have been if the Democrats hadn’t won the White House. This theme is built around the commonplace counter-factual “what if?” and involves us in endless speculation with no assured answer in the end. It may have opened a can of worms for the GOP as pundits (including Cuban) are jumping on the theme to remind us how bad things were four years ago and to note that Mitt Romney, for one, is much better off than he was in 2008! But it made me think about a much more interesting question: are we better off than Thomas Jefferson and the boys in Philadelphia expected us to be as a result of the revolutionary war?

I have referred a couple of times in my blogs to John C. Miller’s remarkable study of the Origins of the American Revolution and came across the following paragraph in his discussion of the writing of the Declaration of Independence. Miller says:

While demolishing the reputation of George III and the monarchy itself, Jefferson gave his countrymen a new goal toward which to strive: a republican system of government in which human rights would take precedence over property and privilege. No one who has read the Declaration could fail to see that an experiment in human relations was being made and that the new order which it established was to be chiefly for the benefit of the common man. Equality and liberty — government by the consent of the governed — were the ideals now held up to men.

Miller is right, of course, as a careful reading of the Declaration will bear out. But one must ask the pressing question: did it all pan out? Is the system we live in a “republican system of government in which human rights . . take precedence over property and privilege”? Does it, in fact, “benefit the common man”? The answer is a rather resounding “No!” Though they don’t wear crowns, property and privilege in the year 2012 are in the ascendency and the rights of humans, in particular ordinary American citizens, are largely ignored — certainly by those who would have us remember how things were four years ago. The Republicans are all about money and if they gain control of this country it would suggest that as a nation we are as well. Heaven forbid!

The wealthy in this country would deny that their wealth and position are a “privilege,” of course. They would insist it is a right — it is theirs by dint of such things as hard work, sweat of the brow, intelligence, and initiative. But this is a half-truth. None of us is where we are without luck and the help of a great many other people — right down to the woman who served us our meals in grammar school and the janitor who cleaned up our messes — not to mention the man who drives the successful business man to his important meetings. No man is an island, as they say.

But we are told in a most interesting blog that Americans don’t believe in luck: the majority of Americans tend to side with the wealthy in believing that the poor, for example, are poor because they are lazy. This is nonsense: few of us are poor simply because we lack effort any more than the wealthy have a “right” to money and prestige: it is in large part luck, good or bad. We may have worked hard to be where we are, but we have been lucky and have had a good deal of help from a great many other people — or failed to have it when we needed it most.

Much has been said about the infamous 1% who control nearly half of the wealth in this country and who are in the process of buying the government outright. And in this discussion it is also noted that the middle class is shrinking while the poor are becoming more numerous. The plan on the political right is to make it even more the case that “property and privilege” control the way things are done in this country and “human rights” are largely ignored — such basic things as food, shelter, and an education sufficient to allow ordinary citizens to gain a foothold in the political process and a job that pays more than minimum wage.

We may or may not be better off than we were four years ago. But we are decidedly further away from Jefferson’s ideal now than we were when he wrote that remarkable document. Surely we need to remind ourselves again and again why we fought for independence from Great Britain and restore the notion of “unalienable” human rights to the center of politics where they belong.