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Wealth Inequality vs. Freedom and Liberty

(About a 10 minute read)

One of the more interesting notions that most of us seem to accept at one or another point in our lives is the notion that freedom and equality are incompatible.

I have heard that notion advanced in this manner: Jones has many marketable talents, while Smith has few marketable talents.  Thus, if Jones is free to make as much money as he can, he will make more money than Smith.  So, for Jones and Smith to be financially equal, something must done to limit Jones’ earnings.  But anything you do to limit Jones’ earnings deprives Jones of his freedom. Consequently, you cannot have both freedom and equality at the same time.

There is great truth in that.

Yet, the notion becomes extraordinarily problematic when we think that’s all there is to it.   For if we were to attempt to secure our freedoms and liberties by such a simple-minded principle as the notion that they can best be secured via allowing the unrestricted accumulation of wealth, we would soon enough find ourselves enslaved.

The problem is — in a nutshell — that Jones, if he gets too much wealth relative to Smith, will inevitably possess the means to subjugate Smith.

Of course, that’s not a real problem, according to some folks, because Jones is a decent old boy and would never think for a moment to use his wealth to destroy Smith’s freedoms and liberties — not even when crushing Smith and his foolish freedoms and liberties would benefit Jones.

Yes, some good folks actually believe that! And in my experience, there’s not much you can say to such folks that will convince them to change their minds once the idea has got hold of them that the only real issue here is the sacred right of Jones to earn as much money as he can, and retain nearly every last dime of it.  “Taxation is theft”, you know.

Rationality is not, on the whole, one of the distinguishing characteristics of our noble species of  poo-flinging super-sized chimpanzees.  That seems to be the case because we happily neglected to evolve our big brains in order to better discern truths.  Instead, we apparently evolved them for other reasons, which I have written about here and here, among other places.  So, I am not writing this post for those folks who are firmly convinced that the bumper-sticker insight, “taxation is theft”, is the very last and wisest word on the matter of wealth inequality.  I am writing this post for those comparatively open-minded individuals who might be looking for some thoughts about wealth inequality to mull over before arriving at any (hopefully, tentative) conclusions about it.

I believe that, to really understand wealth inequality, one needs to remember that we spent roughly 97% of our time as a species on this planet evolving to live in relatively egalitarian communities.  Communities in which there was typically (with a few exceptions) comparatively little political, social, or economic difference between folks.  Everyone was more or less equally engaged in the struggle for food to survive, whether they were hunters (mostly men) or gatherers (mostly women).

Then, about 5,500 years ago some jerk got it into their head that it would be a very good idea if most everyone else would work to support their lazy butt while they spent their hours leisurely whiling away the time ruling over them.  And thus was born the complex society.

“Complex” because there was now a relatively complex division of labor in which, instead of two basic occupations (hunter or gatherer), there were now many occupations (king, priest, lord, judge, craftsman, merchant, farmer, etc).   Moreover, the wealth, and with it, the power in those societies was now concentrated at the top.

The way in which the minority retained their positions over the majority was back then mainly three-fold, just as it still is today.  First, through ideologies justifying the power, wealth, and status of the minority.  “After the kingship descended from heaven, the kingship was in Eridug. In Eridug, Alulim became king…”,  begins the ancient Sumerian king’s list.  Thus, from the very first, the masters were using ideologies to control the masses:  e.g. “kingship descends from  heaven”, and thus you should accept it as what the gods intend for you.

Second, through rallying the people to face a dire (usually external) threat.  It is mere human nature that we are most likely to surrender our freedoms and liberties in preference for slavishly following a leader when we feel threatened by a common enemy.  Indeed, an oppressive state — and not always just an oppressive one — needs a common enemy to unify the people under its boot.

When ideologies fail, then it is time to call upon the soldiers, of course.  Propaganda, a common enemy, and ultimately, force.  The three main pillars of government from the Sumerians to the current day.

In a way, the one major change has been that the government today is largely a front for the real masters — the wealthy corporations and individuals that so many politicians are beholden to, the economic mega-elites.

It should be noted that by “wealthy individuals”, I am not referring to the folks with a few million dollars, but to the folks with hundreds or (especially) billions of dollars.  The average millionaire, in my experience, is not much of a threat to the rights, freedoms, and liberties of others and, in fact, is often enough a defender of those rights.  Call him or her a “local elite” because they are so often focused economically, socially, and politically on the communities they live and work in.  And it seems their ties to those communities generally result in their being net benefactors to them.  But perhaps most importantly, they simply do not have the resources to compete politically with the billionaire class in order to buy the government.  That, at least, is my impression.

No, by “wealthy individuals” I mean the folks who have the resources to be genuine contenders to hold the reins of  power in this — or any — country.  In the most recent national election, the Koch brothers dumped nearly a billion dollars into buying politicians from the level of “mere” state legislators all the way up to the national Congress and Senate.  And they weren’t the only economic mega-elites in the game.

We can have democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.  — Justice Louis D. Brandeis of the U.S. Supreme Court

The problem, of course, isn’t wealth itself, but the concentration of wealth in the hands of a relatively few people.  Over time, the concentration has a natural tendency to worsen.  That is, the wealth ends up in fewer and fewer hands.  Since power follows upon riches closer than a hungry dog follows a butcher, political power, as well, tends over time to end up in fewer and fewer hands.  There seems to be a natural tendency to progress from democracy to oligarchy, and then to dictatorship.

During the same recent forty year or so period in American history when huge tax cuts  for the wealthiest individuals and corporations allowed the billionaire class to explode in size, incomes for the middle class all but became stagnant, while the poor actually lost ground.  There’s no polite way of saying this: “Trickle down economics” is an ideology of oppression used to fool people into believing that cutting taxes on the wealthy will increase job growth.

The average American today arguably works harder, struggles more financially, and has fewer back up resources for a rainy day than his or her parents and grandparents had.  As it turns out, you can’t concentrate almost all the wealth in the hands of a relatively few economic mega-elites without hurting someone.  But who would have thought that?  After all, didn’t the ideologists inform us we’d all be better off cutting taxes on the wealthy?

A comprehensive study has found that the average American now has little or no influence on their legislators, and which bills get passed into law.  Those who determine both the content and success of legislation are the economic mega-elites of America, the billionaires and the large corporations.

Strong, responsible unions are essential to industrial fair play. Without them the labor bargain is wholly one-sided. The parties to the labor contract must be nearly equal in strength if justice is to be worked out, and this means that the workers must be organized and that their organizations must be recognized by employers as a condition precedent to industrial peace.  Louis D. Brandeis

But, of course, we do not wish to believe Brandeis today because the trusty ideologists have also told us unions are a net evil.  Got to trust those boys and girls!  It’s just not true that so very many of them are employed by billionaire funded think tanks and institutions.

Now, the rarest complex societies in history have been those in which most people were more or less free.  But those rare, relatively free societies have also tended at the same time to be more egalitarian.

Tocqueville, for instance, noticed that white males living in the America of the 1830s were both freer and more equal than white males living in either the England or France of the same period.  They were also, according to him, better off economically.  Again, both male and female citizens of the Roman Republic seem to have been both freer and more equal than their counterparts living under the dictatorships of  the Roman Empire.

So the notion that freedom and equality are incompatible, while perhaps seeming to have some inexorable reason and logic on its side, does not always pan out in practice.  Apparently, sometimes quite the opposite has been the case.

About 2000 years ago, Plutarch observed, “An imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics.”  It will be interesting to see whether America has the political will to save its republic.

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New Bill Would Abolish Internet Privacy

Say you were the U.S. government and you wanted a record of every moment that every American was on the internet: every search, every transaction, every click. Of every American. And just for laughs, you also wanted every credit card number and bank account number an American used on the internet.

What would you call such a law?

* The No More Internet Privacy bill
* The 1984 Really Is Here Big Brother bill
* The Trust Your Government With Your Privacy bill

No, those wouldn’t be very attractive with voters, would they. So instead, the House Judiciary Committee has just passed the Protecting Children From Internet Pornographers Act of 2011.

The bill would require your ISP to maintain a record of your internet activity for a year. Not because you’ve done anything wrong, but because you might. If that strikes you as, well, exactly the kind of government reasoning that made the Soviet Union such a successful and stress-free place, you’re right.

And if you’re wondering what that has to do with protecting children, get in line.

From “National Security? Protecting Kids? Porn Takes the Rap Again“, posted on Sexual Intelligence, by Dr. Marty Klein.  The full article is very much worth reading.

I cannot prove it, but I would not be surprised if the so-called “Protecting Children From Internet Pornographers Act” originated in a concern on the part of our leaders that the internet could be used to promote a rebellion against them.

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The Incompetence of Elite Classes

An argument made against democracy is that the people are incompetent to govern themselves.  That may be true.  But history shows the same is most likely true of the elites.

The Soviet Union certainly wasn’t a well run country.  Nor was Mussolini’s Italy — it was a lie the trains ran on time.  It took the Third Reich’s elites about ten years to reduce their nation to rubble.  And we’ve just been offered evidence that government by elite Wall Street insiders does not work all that well in the US.

One could go on and on: Elites down through history seem to be no wiser than anyone else when it comes to government.  The notion that a privileged class is better at governing a people than the people themselves does not seem to have rational support.

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Glenn Greenwald on Bradley Manning

…Americans love to cheer for the Arab Spring rebellions — look at those inspiring people standing up to their evil dictators and demanding freedom — yet the American government officials who propped up those dictators for decades and helped suppress those revolts, including the ones currently in power, are treated as dignified statesmen, while a person who actually exposed those tyrants and played at least some role in triggering those inspiring revolts (Manning) rots in a prison after enduring 10 months of deeply inhumane treatment.

There’s no doubt that it’s illegal for a member of the military to leak classified or secret documents — just as there was no doubt about the illegality of Daniel Ellsberg’s leaks, or a whole slew of other acts of civil disobedience we consider noble.  The fact that an act is legal does not mean it is just, and conversely, that an act is illegal does not mean it is unjust.  Many people enjoy hearing themselves condemn the acts of tyrants and imperial forces in the world. If the allegations against him are true, Bradley Manning knowingly risked his liberty to take action against those acts, in the hope of exposing those responsible and triggering worldwide reforms.  It’s hard to dispute that these leaks achieved exactly that, but even if they hadn’t, his conduct is profoundly commendable, and the world needs far more, not fewer, Bradley Mannings.

Glenn Greenwald

 

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John Sterman on the Consequences of Fundamentalism

“Fundamentalism, whether religious or secular, whether the unquestioning belief in an all-powerful deity, the all-powerful state or the all-powerful free market, breeds persecution, hatred and war.”

John Sterman (page 526 .pdf)

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The US Government’s Pattern When Lying

Whenever the U.S. Government wants to demonize a person or group in order to justify attacks on them, it follows the same playbook:  it manufactures falsehoods about them, baselessly warns that they pose Grave Dangers and are severely harming our National Security, peppers all that with personality smears to render the targeted individuals repellent on a personal level, and feeds it all to the establishment American media, which then dutifully amplifies and mindlessly disseminates it all.

Glenn Greenwald

It seems to me Greenwald has outlined the pattern of attack very well.  As Greenwald points out, this is the pattern the Government has used in everything from the run up to the Iraq War to its recent attacks on Julian Assange and Wikileaks.

I think it could benefit nearly everyone to make a study of the above pattern in the hope that we will thereby be less likely to fall for the BS when it comes down.  Understanding how the Government is likely to lie to us might even be considered one of the duties of any good citizen.  As the Founders of the Republic anticipated, American freedoms and liberties must constantly be defended against the corruption of the American Government.  No one can do that for us.  We must do it for ourselves.