Saturday, October 3, 2009

The American Dream

For anyone who thought like the Wall Street Journal that the financial downturn might do something to lessen the income inequality gap in the United States, guess again. The uber-wealthy may have taken a hit, but it has been more than offset by the hit taken by the poor and the middle class. So the concentration of American wealth that has been going on since the dawn of the Reagan era proceeds unabated.

Of course this is the land of the American dream where anyone can become wealthy and success. Only it turns out that is not so true either. In fact, social mobility in the United States lags behind many other comparable nations. In fact, it seems to have been getting worse throughout the Reagan era as well.

Government bad--Free markets good! That's been the conservative mantra for thirty years and what has it gotten us? The rich have gotten richer and the middle class has fallen behind. Actually that probably isn't correct either. The very rich have gotten a lot richer and everyone else has lagged behind. The world's leading manufacturer has turned into the world's biggest debtor.

I saw Ron Paul on the Daily Show the other night preaching the libertarian gospel. I was happy that Jon Stewart asked the question that I always want to see asked, "Has there ever been a society that met your libertarian ideals?" Many libertarians following the logic of Ayn Rand in Atlas Shrugged point to America before the New Deal as the best exemplar, but I was glad to see Paul admit that there were plenty of industrialists sucking at the government tit in those days. Paul had to go back to the Founding Fathers for the closest approximation of his libertarian dream.

I don't think that the Founding Fathers had the kind of blind faith in free markets that today's libertarians have though. They understood avarice and the lust for power to which man is always prey. They sought to set up a system of checks and balances in which the energy of man's desires could be harnessed to produce desirable ends. However, they did not labor under any illusion that these desires if unfettered would naturally tend to produce justice or the common good.

I am always fascinated by conservative Christians who embrace the free market ideology. Of the seven deadly sins, they would never claim that pride, sloth, gluttony, lust, or anger are forces for good. Yet they willingly accept the notion that unfettered greed and envy will lead to economic prosperity in which all will benefit.

I don't think I agree with the thesis of Michael Moore's new movie that capitalism is immoral, but I tend to think that it is amoral.


  1. Hunger is not gluttony; fatigue is not sloth. A desire to make a profit is not, in itself, greed.

    The preference for free-markets over regulation is founded, at least in part, on the belief that the people in government are no less wicked than those in business and usually not as bright.

    But the right has lost sight of one important part of a properly functioning free market -- morality. For hundreds of years, no one would have claimed that you could have a proper capitalist economy in our moral climate. That people claim that now is probably a product of, well, our moral climate.

  2. You obviously haven't read Ayn Rand's The Virtue of Selfishness. She believed that the only morality that matters is the pursuit of self-interest. To the free market ideologues, whatever the free market produces is by definition just and moral.

  3. Haven't read Rand, but I know you know better than to think all capitalists are of one mold any more than all liberals or all Catholics think just alike.

  4. I wasn't the one who claimed that capitalists were all of the same mold, you were. You said that "no one would have claimed that you could have a proper capitalist economy in our moral climate."