Democracy and The Poor

In his truly remarkable novel The Princess Casamassima Henry James describes for us the trials and tribulations of a young man, illegitimate son of a prostitute and raised by a poor seamstress who pledges himself to the cause of the revolution that many were convinced was coming to England in the middle of the nineteenth century. The young man, a gifted bookbinder, is conflicted, but pledges his life to the cause only to meet and become close friends with the heroine of the novel who opens to him a world he had never known existed. As a consequence, he  begins to wonder if the revolution is worth the cost of the treasures of Western civilization. The long novel recounts the growing uncertainties of the young man’s early commitment to the revolution as, ironically, the Princess becomes increasingly committed to that ideal.

We might do well to recall that at the time England saw 10,000 people thrown each year into debtors prison because of their inability to pay their way — despite the fact that they were supposed to pay for their upkeep while in prison! It was, surely, a classic case of “Catch 22.” As many as 90,000 in London alone were estimated to be among the poor and destitute at that time. In any event, the hope of young men, like our hero, was the coming of socialism and democracy (the two were not carefully distinguished in the minds of such people). James describes for us the ruminations going on in the mind of his young hero, Hyacinth:

“What was most in Hyacinth’s mind was the idea, of which every pulsation of the general life of his time was a syllable, that the flood of democracy was rising over the world; that it would sweep traditions of the past before it; that, whatever it might fail to bring, it would at least carry in its bosom a magnificent energy; and that it might be trusted to look after its own. When democracy should have its way everywhere, it would be its fault (who else’s could it be?) if want and suffering and crime should continue to be ingredients of the human lot. . . . [at the same time] he was afraid the democracy wouldn’t care for the perfect bindings [of books] or for the finest sort of conversation. The Princess gave up these things in proportion as she advanced in the direction she had so audaciously chosen; and if the Princess could give them up it would take very transcendent natures to stick to them.”

The Princess, married to a man she had come to deeply dislike and rejecting a way of life she detested, was at this point committed even more deeply than Hyacinth to the revolution that was sure to come. She had given up her worldly wealth and lofty position and moved to the squalor of Soho surrounded by the poor she was determined to help release from their poverty. But the changes in her way of looking at and speaking about the world were palpable, and this is what the narrator refers to in this passage. But what is more interesting is the hope of such people for their deliverance at the hands of a democracy and an economic system that held up to them possibilities beyond their wildest imaginings.

We might also recall that de Tocqueville had visited America in the early part of the nineteenth century and had written his classic study of Democracy In America which was in large measure a contributing factor to the hopes and dreams of young idealists like our hero who were convinced that “the flood of democracy was rising over the world.” More to the point, it would erase poverty and crime and help humankind achieve true equality.

One does wonder, as we can now look back from our lofty perspective, what could possibly have gone wrong?

Advertisements

Socialism Revisited

I am reposting a piece I wrote in 2013, before Bernie Sanders declared himself as a candidate for president, but a time when the word “socialism” was misunderstood and used pejoratively — much as it is today. Sanders is dismissed by many, including the media apparently, because he is a “socialist.”  But how many who readily dismiss the man understand what the word means? This post was an attempt to clarify the meaning somewhat, so I post it here again. Please note that Sanders refers to himself as a “democratic socialist.” The modifier is important.

In every generation there are a number of words that take on pejorative overtones — many of which were never part of the term’s meaning in the first place. Not long ago, for instance, “discipline” was a positive concept, but it has become a bad thing thanks to pop psychologists and progressive educators who ignore the fact that mental discipline is essential to clear thinking and the creation of art instead of junk. Another such term is “discrimination” which used to simply suggest the ability to separate the wheat from the chaff, good paintings and good music from random paint scattered on canvas or mere noise. Indeed, it was a sign of an educated person to be regarded as discriminating. In recent days, thanks to the Tea Party, the latest loaded, “scare term” is “socialism.” The political scare term used to be “communism,” but that term was somewhat neutralized when the Soviet Union broke up and reconciliation became the word of the day. But even when it was in use, most people would have been shocked to know that in its pure form communism was in close harmony with the teachings of Jesus Christ. Further, the Soviet Union was never a communist nation by any stretch of the term. If anything, it was a socialistic dictatorship.

But let’s take a closer look at socialism. The term means, strictly speaking, that the state owns the means of production. That has not come to pass in this country, even with the recent federal bailouts of the banks and auto companies — initiated by a Republican President, by the way. But there certainly has been growing involvement on the part of the government in economic circles, ever since F.D.R and his “New Deal.” Frequently these incursions were made to fill a void created by uncaring corporations, many to protect our environment which seems to be of no concern to large-scale polluters. Further it may be a good thing that such things as anti-trust laws interfere with the unbridled competition that many think is essential to capitalism — an economic system that has resulted in a society in which the 400 richest Americans now have a combined net worth greater than the lowest 150 million Americans and nearly half of the population lives in poverty. In any event, even if the current President, and others of his ilk, has been accurately accused of promoting “socialism,” we might want to know if this would be such a terrible thing. Take the case of Finland, a decidedly socialistic nation.

Finns pay high taxes “but they don’t spend all their money building $22 billion aircraft carriers, $8 billion submarines, $412 million fighter planes, or spend a million dollars a year keeping each soldier in foreign adventures such as Iraq and Afghanistan,” as noted in a recent article by Ed Raymond in Duluth, Minnesota’s Weekly Reader. On the contrary, Finnish children are guaranteed essentials in the way of food and clothing, medical care, counseling and even taxi fare, if needed. “All student health care is free for the family. The state provides three years of maternity leave for the mother and subsidized day care for parents. All five-year-olds attend a preschool program that emphasizes play and socializing. Ninety-seven percent of six-year-olds attend public pre-schools where they begin to study academics. ‘Real’ school begins at seven and is compulsory,” as Raymond goes on to point out.

Finnish schools are rated the highest in the world; their teachers are held in high esteem, paid well, and are drawn from the top quartile of university students. Last year in Finland there were 6.600 applicants for 660 empty teaching slots. The student-to-teacher ratio is seven to one. Contrast this with our over-crowded classrooms and an educational system that underpays and overworks teachers and holds them in low regard. Clearly, there is something here worth pondering, and it lends the lie to the notion that socialism is an inherently bad thing and something to be avoided at all costs, especially given the fact that recent studies have suggested that the Finns are among the happiest people on earth.

Am I advocating socialism? Not necessarily. But I advocate fairness and I am in total support of those who want a system that taxes the wealthy as well as the poor; those who think a good slice of the “defense” budget would go a long way toward funding projects such as Bernie Sanders envisions; I also support attempts to provide health care for those who cannot afford it; I vote for political candidates who seem to care more about people than about profits; but above all else, I oppose those who throw about terms they don’t understand in at an attempt to frighten others rather than to advance understanding.

Viewed From Up North

It is always enlightening to get the take on this country from the perspective of another. In this case, Gerald Caplan writes in Canada’s Globe and Mail about Bernie Sanders and about America’s mangled political system — and how out of touch we are with the rest of the world. It is worth a read:

Across the rich world, only in the United States is Bernie Sanders seen as some kind of extremist of the left. It shows just how dangerously far to the radical right America’s political culture has moved.
Sanders situates himself four-square within the tradition of American reformers like Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In the view of many historians, F.D.R., president through most of the Great Depression of the 1930s, saved American capitalism from its capitalists.
Nor does Sanders embrace such once-classic, now-abandoned left-wing nostrums as the nationalization of industries. “I don’t believe government should take over the grocery store down the street or own the means of production,” he told students at Georgetown University. “But I do believe that the middle class and the working families who produce the wealth of America deserve a decent standard of living and that their incomes should go up, not down.” Throw in a couple of “hard-workings” here and there, and Comrade Bernie could jump right into the middle of Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party.
Nowhere are the absurd limits of American politics better exposed than when Sanders is bitterly pummelled for supporting something really far-out, even near-Bolshevik – a Canadian-style public health system.
Last October, a voter challenged Bernie. “I come from a generation where [socialism] is a pretty radical term – we think of socialism [with] communism. Can you explain to us exactly what that is?” Bernie: “If we go to some countries, what they will have is health care for all as a right. I believe in that. They will have paid family and medical leave. I believe in that. They will have a much stronger childcare system than we have, which is affordable for working families. I believe in that.”
“What I mean by democratic socialism,” Bernie explained, “is looking at countries in Scandinavia that have much lower rates of child poverty, that have a fairer tax system that guarantees basic necessities of life to working people. Essentially what I mean by that is creating a government that works for working families, rather than the kind of government we have today, which is largely owned and controlled by wealthy individuals and large corporations.”
Whatever you call Bernie’s vision, bring it on! It’s what every civilized society should provide its citizens as a right. It’s what the NDP has long stood for.

But, as Mr. Caplan goes on to explain, Sanders has almost no chance of winning the American presidency. And if he were to somehow pull it off, Caplan predicts, “he will be gone within a month.” I’m not sure what he means by the latter statement, but it is clear to me that the American electorate is not sophisticated enough to elect a man who is regarded as an “extremist.” Their ignorance is exemplified here by the question Sanders is asked by “a voter” who doesn’t know the difference between communism and socialism. Nor is it that Sanders is going to be able to effect any real change in this country until or unless the Congress is totally separated from the corporations that at present elect them to public office and pull their collective strings. That seems to me to be most unlikely.

 

Bernie’s Battles

Bernie Sanders says all the right things — well, almost all the right things. He has been soft on gun control which is troubling. But, then, he is a politician and must say things to get himself elected to the Senate in Vermont that he may not really believe. That’s the name of the game. In any event, he truly wants to do the right thing by his country and he is certainly operating outside the mainstream of politics for the most part. As I noted in a previous post, he knows that the real battle in this country is not between the Republicans and the Democrats. It’s between the very wealthy together with their corporations and the rest of us.

Sanders' Official Senate Portrait

Sanders’ Official Senate Portrait

The problem, of course, is that so many of Bernie’s dreams are just that: dreams. They are pie-in-the-sky. Radical change that flies in the face of present politics-as-usual. He is labelled a “socialist,” which is inaccurate. A socialist wants the state to own the means of production. Karl Marx thought Socialism was a step toward Communism where there would be no private ownership, all would share things in common — not unlike the hopes expressed in the New Testament. So far as I know Bernie Sanders does not want that to happen. He just wants those who own the means of production and who just happen to make 300 times as much money as their average employee to share some of their wealth. He would raise taxes on the rich which, as history has shown, might just help this economy get back on track. We were never as fiscally healthy as we were when the wealthy helped bear their share of the burden of government. You know, before Ronald Reagan’s “trickle down” nonsense. As things now stand there are so many tax loops for the wealthy they hardly help at all. Bernie wants to right the ship.

But, as I say, his are dreams that seem will-o’-the-wisp, hardly the sorts of things the Congress will help him achieve. And, as I have also said in a previous post, without the help of the Congress the president cannot do much of anything. I dare say Bernie knows this and it would appear that he has in his sights a much larger prize: complete political reform. He wants to sweep into office with a majority of the Congress behind him. That would certainly make it more likely that he could actually initiate much-needed reform. And if he can light a fire in the electorate and get enough of the idealistic young on his side he may just do that. It’s a long shot, but it does inspire hope at a time when hope is a slender thread connecting dreams and reality.

The only thing that bothers me about this scenario is whether a Congress, be it Democratic or Republican, would actually put their collective careers on the line for radical change. It is likely that the majority of the Congress any new president would have to work with would still be beholden to the corporations. The wealthy support politicians on both sides of the aisle, just in case. Bernie may succeed in his attempt to free himself of all corporate ties, and might even gain a majority in the Congress, but it is unlikely that those in Congress could get elected — or if elected remain in office — without corporate support. That’s Bernie’s largest battle. It’s not about getting elected. It’s about beating the corporations in order to be an effective president.

Nevertheless, it is a hopeful sign that there is someone in the political arena who has the courage to say the right things, even though they are not the things the wealthy want to hear (because they are not those things?). As I read recently, Hillary Clinton is the person running for president who could work most effectively in the present political arena. Bernie is the one who wants to change the game entirely and play it more or less the way the founders wanted it played at the outset, reversing the current trend toward oligarchy. You have to admire his vision and his courage. Whether he will win the battles ahead remains to be seen.

Democracy and Socialism

Karl Marx, being a Hegelian, was convinced that capitalism was inherently contradictory and would therefore implode and in the process it would become transformed into socialism. The state would take over the means of production after the workers revolted against the owners who were exploiting them by paying them less than their labor was worth. The problem, as Marx saw it, was that in a capitalist economy workers are forced by circumstances to sell their labor as a commodity to a factory owner and this in itself is a contradiction — since labor is not a commodity. When, say, the carpenter who makes furniture in his small shop with an apprentice or two finds he cannot compete with the factory down the road that turns out furniture at a faster rate he must go to work for the owner of that factory in order to survive. The factory owner pays him a minimum wage (?) that has no relation whatever to the value of the objects the carpenter is now helping to produce. This is another contradiction. The real problem arises because the furniture he now helps to produce for the owner of the factory creates what Marx called “surplus value,” that is, value in excess of the value of the labor that went into the production of the furniture, including a reasonable profit for the owner. The owner keeps that surplus value himself in the form of excessive profits and therein lies another contradiction: the value that ought to accrue to the worker (because he helps to create it) goes to the factory owner. When the N.F.L. struck several years ago, the players wanted their income to be predicated on the amount of money the owners were taking in from TV revenue and at the gate. They didn’t know it, but the players’ stand was thoroughly Marxist.

In any event, because of these inherent contradictions within capitalism, Marx thought the government would inevitably take over the means of production in order to protect the workers and capitalism would be replaced by socialism which would almost certainly be coupled with a democratic political system — and history has borne out that coupling, for the most part. While there are obvious exceptions, such as the former U.S.S.R., not only is our democracy itself a peculiar mixture of capitalism and socialism, but there are a number of  nations that have found socialism fits nicely within the bosom of democracy — England, for one, and even more so the Scandinavian countries where, we are told, some of the happiest people on earth live and work.

It is amusing that a great many people in this country fear socialism the way folks in the middle ages feared leprosy — even though measures have been taken to make our economy more socialistic since at least the time of Franklin Roosevelt, and the government has always meddled in the economy. There has never been such a thing in this country as “free enterprise capitalism.” In the beginning the economies of the various colonies took the form of mercantile capitalism in which the colonial governments maintained considerable control in order to reduce the possibility of inordinate wealth in the hands of a few — fearing that it might develop into aristocracy, or fearing wealthy American colonists who might become a threat to Mother England. Most of the colonies also had laws prohibiting primogeniture as well, in order to spread the wealth. Despite these measures, a small group of wealthy Americans was able to help fund the revolution that eventually freed the colonies.

Many people mistakenly identify democracy and capitalism even though, while it is certainly the case that they evolved together historically, one is a political system and the other an economic one and the two are at times incompatible. Out-of-control capitalism, as we are seeing, results in incredible wealth in the hands of very few and a powerless electorate, which cripples democracy. At the same time, many people also fear things such as the Affordable Care Act because it smells of socialism and must therefore be “undemocratic” or “un-American,” whereas it does not conflict in any way with the democratic process. Folks frequently fear what they do not understand. These people need to be reminded of the fact that this country, which is ostensibly a democratic one, has been slowly but steadily moving in the direction of greater state involvement if not since the very beginning then at least since the 1930s and that a number of federal policies and agencies have sprung up since that time to avoid monopolies and to temper individual enthusiasm — largely because that enthusiasm in pursuit of profit has often shown complete disregard for the health and well-being of our citizens.

At any rate, capitalism is not to be confused with democracy and socialism is in many ways more compatible with democracy than is capitalism, especially our particular form of capitalism in which a few wealthy folks seem to have all the power and the rest of us simply go through the motions. A democracy is supposed to be a government of, by and for the people, but when the corporations and a few very wealthy families control the reins of power the political system cannot be said to be a democracy in any meaningful sense of that term. In a socialistic economy, on the other hand, in which the possibility of a few gaining the vast majority of the wealth and power is thwarted by the intervention of state and federal agencies and the courts, the people have more power and the political process is more likely to be one that is amenable to the will of the people as a whole. In other words, democracy often joins more comfortably with socialism than it does with capitalism because more of the citizens are likely to be in a position to play an effective role in self-government when the wealth and power are not allowed to collect in the banks or off-shore accounts of a very few — and the highest courts are not declaring that corporations are “persons,” thereby allowing them to unduly influence the outcome of political elections. I don’t advocate the elimination of private ownership, since I am aware of the advantages of a competitive economy, but I do wonder why so many of our citizens are frightened of an economic system that, it turns out, is quite compatible with democracy and which almost certainly gives them more power and freedom in the end.

Whereof We Speak

In every generation there are a number of words that take on pejorative overtones — many of which were never part of the term’s meaning in the first place. Not long ago, for instance, “discipline” was a positive concept, but it has become a bad thing thanks to pop psychologists and progressive educators who ignore the fact that mental discipline is essential to clear thinking and the creation of art instead of junk. Another such term is “discrimination” which used to simply suggest the ability to separate the wheat from the chaff, good paintings and good music from random paint scattered on canvas or mere noise. Indeed, it was a sign of an educated person to be regarded as discriminating. In recent days, thanks to the Tea Party, the latest loaded, “scare term” is “socialism.” The political scare term used to be “communism,” but that term was somewhat neutralized when the Soviet Union broke up and reconciliation became the word of the day. But even when it was in use, most people would have been shocked to know that in its pure form communism was in close harmony with the teachings of Jesus Christ. Further, the Soviet Union was never a communist nation by any stretch of the term. If anything, it was a socialistic dictatorship.

But let’s take a closer look at socialism. The term means, strictly speaking, that the state owns the means of production. That has not come to pass in this country, even with the recent federal bailouts of the banks and auto companies — initiated by a Republican President, by the way. But there certainly has been growing involvement on the part of the government in economic circles, ever since F.D.R and his “New Deal.” Frequently these incursions were made to fill a void created by uncaring corporations, many to protect our environment which seems to be of no concern to large-scale polluters. Further it may be a good thing that such things as anti-trust laws interfere with the unbridled competition that many think is essential to capitalism — an economic system that has resulted in a society in which the 400 richest Americans now have a combined net worth greater than the lowest 150 million Americans and nearly half of the population lives in poverty. In any event, even if the current President, and others of his ilk, has been accurately accused of promoting “socialism,” we might want to know if this would be such a terrible thing. Take the case of Finland, a decidedly socialistic nation.

Finns pay high taxes “but they don’t spend all their money building $22 billion aircraft carriers, $8 billion submarines, $412 million fighter planes, or spend a million dollars a year keeping each soldier in foreign adventures such as Iraq and Afghanistan,” as noted in a recent article by Ed Raymond in Duluth, Minnesota’s Weekly Reader. On the contrary, Finnish children are guaranteed essentials in the way of food and clothing, medical care, counseling and even taxi fare, if needed. “All student health care is free for the family. The state provides three years of maternity leave for the mother and subsidized day care for parents. All five-year-olds attend a preschool program that emphasizes play and socializing. Ninety-seven percent of six-year-olds attend public pre-schools where they begin to study academics. ‘Real’ school begins at seven and is compulsory,” as Raymond goes on to point out.

Finnish schools are rated the highest in the world; their  teachers are held in high esteem, paid well, and are drawn from the top quartile of university students.  Last year in Finland there were 6.600 applicants for 660 empty teaching slots. The student-to-teacher ratio is seven to one. Contrast this with our over-crowded classrooms and an educational system that underpays and overworks teachers and holds them in low regard. Clearly, there is something here worth pondering, and it lends the lie to the notion that socialism is an inherently bad thing and something to be avoided at all costs, especially given the fact that recent studies have suggested that the Finns are among the happiest people on earth.

Am I advocating socialism? Not necessarily. But I advocate fairness and I am in total support of those who want a  system that taxes the wealthy as well as the poor; I support this President’s attempts to provide health care for those who cannot afford it; I vote for political candidates who seem to care more about people than about profits; but above all else, I oppose those who throw about terms they don’t understand in at an attempt to frighten rather than to advance understanding.

Enslaving Recipients

A few days ago I wrote a blog in which I suggested we need to alter our mind-set regarding the payment of taxes. Instead of the pejorative overtones the word has now we should try to give it a positive spin and bear in mind the immense good our taxes do — regardless of the abuses of the system that are inevitable. The blog received a most interesting comment from William Thien who appreciated my take on the question but who worried that recipients of tax relief for food, clothing, shelter, and schooling might in fact become “enslaved” by the money thrown their way: they might become dependent on the government’s largess. This is an excellent point and one I have worried about for many years.

In fact, Dostoevsky and Nietzsche both worried about it as well, and they had much larger minds than mine. They worried that “socialism” (which Dostoevsky regarded as the bastard stepchild of Catholicism, which he hated for the same reasons) deprived humans of their freedom by making them dependent on the generosity of the state (or the Church). In any case they insisted that freedom was the core of humanity: without it we are less than human, “denizens of an ant heap,” as Dostoevsky would have it.

The idea comes from Kant’s notion of autonomy which he regarded as essential to our humanity: it is what makes us human, The fact is that we, of all the animals, are the only ones who can make and follow (or ignore) our own moral precepts. This is real freedom — from which comes our responsibility — and it is the heart of our humanity according to Kant. To the extent that we initiate our own moral precepts to that extent are we human. It is a rich and very persuasive point of view.

But in the “real” world, where philosophers often stumble over the furniture, people suffer from lack of necessities for their survival. They can hardly be expected to achieve freedom in Kant’s sense. Are they then less than human? Certainly not. Further, in the face of human suffering doesn’t it behoove each of us to do what we can to alleviate that suffering and care about our fellow humans who if ignored must go without? Those who suffer from chronic malnutrition and lack of adequate clothing are not really in a position to realize their full human potential in Kant’s sense of that term. One could argue that those who lack adequate schooling cannot be said to be fully autonomous human beings, either — again, in Kant’s sense of that term. These people are too busy just trying to survive in an unfriendly world. It’s not clear that in the extreme case the chronically disadvantaged should even be held responsible for their actions. These people deserve more. And if we are in a position to provide more it would appear we have an obligation to respond by being generous.

If it is wrong to alleviate suffering because it “enslaves” those who are the recipients of our generosity (or our tax money), it is much worse to look the other way and ignore the suffering of those we might be in position to help. I would say it is the lesser of two evils, except that I fail to see that the option of helping others is in any way “evil.” Furthermore, as I look deeper into the issue I wonder whether this sort of dependence, this “enslavement” that is associated with social programs that help people in need is any different from the perfectly ordinary forms of dependence that we associate with “free market” capitalism — to wit, the dependence of the wage earner or the salaried employee on the largess of his or her employer, or even the independent business person on his or her customers. I dare say the “fat cats” at the top of the capitalistic pyramid depend on tax breaks and subsidies to help them increase their already obscene wealth. We are all tied by numerous bonds of interdependence in this or any economic system. But the major impediments to real independence, the achievement of autonomy, are poverty and ignorance. And we are in a position to do something about those if we choose to do so.

In the end I still contend that we need to rethink our take on taxation. Despite the abuses our tax money does immense good: it eliminates a great deal of human suffering and frees many people from dehumanizing conditions. Surely, these are good things.

Simple Solution?

Our economic woes which seem to dwarf all others in the minds of so many voters may not be that hard to remedy. France seems to have found a path to the solution as a recent article on Yahoo points out:

PARIS (Reuters) – France’s new Socialist government announced tax rises worth 7.2 billion euros on Wednesday, including heavy one-off levies on wealthy households and big corporations, to plug a revenue shortfall this year caused by flagging economic growth.

If the solution is seemingly fairly straightforward, the problem remains how to get this Congress to act — as the brilliant “Non Sequitur” comic pointed out recently:

There’s another problem, of course. Americans are deathly afraid of the term “socialism” even though they don’t know what it means and despite the fact that since Teddy Roosevelt over a century ago this country has introduced a number of measures that are plainly socialistic — from health care and aid to education to welfare, Social Security, and worker’s compensation. In fact, if we left it to private enterprise, this country would be in deeper do-do than it already is, at least as far as the average American is concerned. The determination of the government to intercede when private corporations contaminate our air and water, destroy the earth, and ignore the suffering of those who struggle is what has kept us afloat. We should not fear to take further steps in the same direction we have been headed in for over 100 years. As France’s example suggests, the solution to our economic problems may be fairly straightforward: raise taxes on the wealthy and close corporate loopholes while we cut subsidies to Big Oil.

In the end, however, it won’t happen because the corporations, in spite of the Federal controls they bitch about, still have a winning hand and they will continue to fight any attempts to levy higher taxes on themselves and those who run their companies, as the recent defeat in the Senate of the so-called “Buffett Rule” demonstrated. And with the most recent Supreme Court decision on the Affordable Care Act which may disallow the commerce clause as rationale for progressive acts of legislation in the future we seem to be moving further away from not only a more humane and public-spirited government but also from a solution to our economic woes which is simple in principle but nearly impossible in fact.

A Moral Dilemma

I am convinced by such minds as Nietzsche and Dostoevsky that when people are simply handed things they become dependent upon the handout and consequently lose their freedom. David Hume thought that giving alms to beggars was a mistake for the same reason. Dostoevsky’s grand inquisitor puts it in theological terms, but the point is well stated that humans want bread and miracles and they want things handed to them even at the cost of their freedom. But that is a price many think worth paying. Freedom, after all, is accompanied with responsibility and that is a terrible burden. Dostoevsky thought socialism was the offspring of the devil precisely because he thought humans become dependent upon the state; they must be free or they cease to be humans, they become “denizens of an ant heap.”

On the other hand, I am aware, as were these men, that there are those in our society in genuine need, people who are born into poverty and need and simply cannot work their way out. There are cynics who say these people get what they deserve, the social Darwinists who insist that the fittest should survive and the rest be damned. But I note that those who say this are almost always among the survivors — and in many cases they prosper precisely because have had things go their way and have never known need, much less dire poverty.

So the dilemma is clear: we deprive humans of their freedom by giving them a handout and running the risk that they become dependent upon that handout and thus become less than human. On the other hand, we ignore those in need and turn our backs on them so they will retain their freedom, even if they should starve to death.

The solution seems almost too simple: we err on the side of charity which, as the New Testament reminds us, is the “greatest” of the Christian virtues — a virtue that is missing in many Eastern religions that embrace “a tolerance devoid of charity,”  as Arthur Koestler reminds us. Those who are charitable are rewarded in helping others by becoming more human themselves. Socialism is not a viable economic system, in my view, because it undermines initiative and rewards laziness — both serious character flaws. But it is more charitable than capitalism with its stress on greed and the attendant corruption. Socialism’s appeal is moral, not economic. And as such it is the preferable alternative. But in between the two economic systems one would hope to discover a system in which those with talent and ability can accomplish much and acquire wealth proportionately while at the same time those less fortunate than themselves are encouraged but not ignored. In this dream world, all remain free and fully human. Whether or not we could ever realize such a system is doubtful, of course. But we make a mistake to embrace one or the other of the economic poles while ignoring the possibility that there might be a compromise in which all win out. The problem is to find the middle ground, where people and governments are charitable and help others without those who are helped becoming “denizens of an ant heap.”

Irreconcilable Differences

When I was in college back in the dark ages I wrote a senior thesis titled “Dollars and Sense.” It wasn’t that good, but it started me on the path to investigating what seemed to me even then the inherent contradiction between Christianity and capitalism. I had read R.H.Tawney’s Religion and the Rise of Capitalism and later studied Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. And while in college I read Karl Marx’s Capital. Later I taught courses in Marx’s theories, especially as found in the first volume of Capital. It makes for tough but fascinating reading and, no, it doesn’t make me a “commie” — it is well to know what tunes the devil is playing. I learned some important things.

To begin with, Marx was a lousy economist. Most agree about this. He based his economic theories on the labor theory of value, which insists that the value of a commodity is determined by how much “homogeneous” labor goes into the making of it. This theory has since been dismissed out of hand. But while he wasn’t a very good economist, Marx was an excellent moralist. In fact, if you look closely, his moral theory comes right out of the New Testament as does much of ethical theory in the West. I doubt that Marx would have admitted that, however, as he thought religion the “opiate of the people.” But it remains the case.

He was deeply disturbed by the fact that private ownership of the means of production under capitalism requires that human beings have to sell their labor, thereby becoming commodities themselves. This reduces persons to things. The capitalist, while admittedly taking risks, exerts little labor of his own while exploiting the labor of others. That is, he uses other people while growing rich himself. The further problem, as Marx saw it, was that the man (or woman) who labors is separated from the product he or she makes . He called this “alienation.” And it was these factors, all of them moral considerations, that Marx believed would bring capitalism to an end.

In Marx’s view, the moral contradictions within capitalism would eventually bring about a revolution that would result in socialism in which the state would end up owning the means of production thereby allowing the workers to begin to realize the actual worth of their labor. But this was to be a transitional stage to communism, an egalitarian society in which all owned the means of production, no one exploited anyone, there was no alienation of labor, and everyone would enjoy the fruits of their labors. This, of course, is an ideal and it is surprisingly like the ideals of Christianity. Indeed, it might describe life in a monastery.

We must be careful not to confuse the communism of Marx with what we called “communist” states, such as Russia under Stalin, or China or Cuba. These were or are, strictly, not communistic states at all. They are socialist/totalitarian states run by a small group of powerful men who denied all rights to their citizens and ran things with an iron hand. Under communism, as Marx saw it, there would be no political state — it would “wither away.”

In the end, the most interesting part of this intellectual journey, for me, was coming to the realization that the basic principles of capitalism — whether they be viewed through the eyes of critics like Marx or the sympathetic eyes of Christian thinkers like Tawney and Weber — are in direct opposition to the ideals put forth in the New Testament. There is simply no way a doctrine that talks about giving away one’s wealth and not serving “Mammon” could be reconciled with a doctrine that is all about accumulating as much wealth as possible, though attempts have been made.

Thus, those who in this society embrace what they call “democratic freedom” (while meaning free-enterprise capitalism) and who at the same time call themselves Christians, are living a lie. As I mentioned in an earlier blog: you can’t have it both ways. And any attempts at compromise will be awkward at best, though there are a great many decent, charitable people in this country who do good while at the same time doing well. That is possible.