Posts Tagged class envy
President Obama has been re-elected, and as many commentators point out, he faces a nation even more divided than when he took office.
I’m currently reading President Calvin Coolidge’s autobiography, and in it, he describes a situation quite similar to our own. In the 1910s, Coolidge was a state senator in Hampshire County, Massachusetts, yet even in his local community, he witnessed severe conflict and division among his fellow citizens, including the now-famous “Bread and Roses” strike and the accelerating split in the Republican Party toward Teddy Roosevelt’s emerging progressivism…
…It would be January of 1914 that Coolidge was sworn in as President of the Massachusetts Senate. He would now have a louder voice, along with more opportunity to change things: to face the tide of radicalism and class warfare and restore confidence and unity in the Commonwealth.
Coolidge responded by giving an inauguration speech for the ages (now known as “Have Faith in Massachusetts”), one that downplayed the power of government as the primary agent of cultural and economic change, avoided divisive distinctions of class, gender, or race, and instead elevated the redemptive, restorative power and potential of the human spirit. Instead of promoting a zero-sum view of human engagement, Coolidge emphasized and romanticized the type of cooperation and collaboration that the market provides and prosperity demands.
Here’s a sample of the speech:
This Commonwealth is one. We are all members of one body. The welfare of the weakest and the welfare of the most powerful are inseparably bound together. Industry cannot flourish if labor languish. Transportation cannot prosper if manufactures decline. The general welfare cannot be provided for in any one act, but it is well to remember that the benefit of one is the benefit of all, and the neglect of one is the Read the rest of this entry »
The attitudes and actions of the Occupy Wall Street protesters have inspired many others to join the streets in outrage, leaving those of us at home to wonder what the point of it all may be.
And let me assure you: there is indeed a point.
I’ve been struck by the moral arrogance that permeates the crowds — a sort of pretentious, self-absorbed judgmentalism, self-anointed to invade the souls of the rich and expose their moral failings. Such supposed vice, we are told, must be stopped, and it is these brave oracles of materialism and greed who shall stand in its way.
There are, of course, a few problems with this. One is that “ending corporate greed” requires privy knowledge of who is greedy and who is not. We can certainly trust the discernment of the guy smoking pot in the sleeping bag next to the sewer drain, but even if he gets it right, how might we convince Mr. Fat-Cat Richiebottoms to alter his moral outlook?
“Just take his money away,” they’ll say.
Yet if I threw Billy Goodheart’s “Everyone is greedy but me!” sign in the garbage, my hunch is that his ability to produce quality picketing art would only improve. There he’d be, the very next day, with the same attitudes, the same platitudes, and the same distasteful propensity to blame the Man.
Reality alert: You cannot change the world by blaming others, and you cannot change moral behavior by yelling.
With particular precision, David Brooks sums up the issue nicely:
If there is a core theme to the Occupy Wall Street movement, it is that the virtuous 99 percent of society is being cheated by the richest and greediest 1 percent. This is a theme that allows the people in the 99 percent to think very highly of themselves. All their problems are caused by the nefarious elite.
And problems do abound. Yes, there are structural issues with the status quo. Yes, corporatism is out of control (which is not the same as “capitalism,” mind you). Yes, banks and businesses were/are reckless. Yes, people were/are greedy. You woke up on the right planet.
The question is, “What can we do about it?”
In a free society, one thing we can control is our own lives. If we don’t want to be beholden to greedy misers or enslaved to high-interest credit cards, we can say “no.” If we don’t want to be tied to 10 years of student-loan debt that we can’t afford, we can go to a trade school or demonstrate some basic upfront frugality. If we’re looking for our dream job and can’t find it, we can continue to increase our skills and standing, no matter how frustrating the process may be.
If, however, we are trying to “be the change we want to see in the world” by sleeping in a gutter for weeks on end, we should be prepared to receive our prize.
Conservatives and libertarians like to downplay privilege and focus mostly on merit. “Just work hard,” they’ll say, which is indeed part of the solution. Yet it is not the only element in play.
Watch the video here:
Here’s an excerpt:
[A]lthough our efforts certainly play a part in how well we succeed in life—and although they may indeed be a primary factor in some or most cases—are we really to ignore where we came from and how that came to be? After all, isn’t our ability to triumph and overcome obstacles only inspiring insofar as it contrasts with whatever little amount of privilege we had in the first place? What are “obstacles,” anyway, if not the things that don’t come easy? Do we marvel over the relative accomplishments of John D. Rockefeller’s children as much as we marvel over the striking ascendance of Rockefeller himself?
Yet while many in the “pro-capitalism” crowd downplay privilege too much, those in the Marxist camp twist it to be the determining factor of our existence: either our weapon or our prison:
Whereas the pro-capitalism crowd likes to pretend class privilege is a non-issue, the Marxist crowd likes to pretend that such privilege determines our very actions. If you are born poor, you are incapable of becoming wealthy, because if you are born wealthy, you are incapable of not Read the rest of this entry »
Last Monday I had the great pleasure of participating in an event at the American Enterprise Institute titled “Grieving the Good of Others: Envy and Economics.” The event was organized by AEI’s Project on Values and Capitalism.
The primary speaker was Victor Claar, associate professor of economics at Henderson State University and co-author of the book Economics in Christian Perspective: Theory, Policy, and Life Choices (my review is forthcoming).
Claar offered many insights on envy, discussing its implications both as a personal sin and an economic motivator. Although he briefly touched on the envious impulse behind Marxism (a common tack), the majority of his talk focused on how unequal outcomes in capitalism can lead to envy.
The question? What, if anything, are we to do about that? Can we actually limit envy by forcefully suppressing “opportunities” for it to manifest? What are the secondary impacts of such a scheme?
After Claar’s talk, I was allowed a few minutes to respond along with AEI’s Emily Batman. In my response, I pulled the scope back a bit and talked about the overall limits economic policymaking has on shaping individual morality. To make my point, I talked about authentic morality vs. artificial morality, drawing a few economic parallels along the way (e.g. authentic prices vs. artificial ones).
Following our responses was a Q&A session, which led to its own assortment of insights.
I encourage you to check out the event for yourself, which is posted online in Read the rest of this entry »
Michael Knox Beran has a hearty piece in this month’s National Review discussing the cultural implications of status competition (“Status Hiatus”). In the article, Beran discusses the evolution of such competition throughout human history, focusing primarily on the West.
Beran explains that in the feudalistic societies of old, status was organized through “state-enforced hierarchies” of one kind or another, whereas in today’s free(r) societies there is a great deal of status competition.
However, despite the advances we’ve made in making status mobility more universal, Beran sees a fundamental problem that will always exist:
The difficulty is that every tremor of satisfaction we feel when we look down (upon those who are lower than we are in a particular hierarchy) is counterbalanced by the pain we feel when we look up (to those who are higher). The farther one climbs, the more vexing the problem becomes.
There are two basic approaches to “managing” status, both of which present their own problems. First, we can make status primarily about merit (which we have done in America), but by doing so we will risk the marginalization of society’s lower-skilled members. Second, we can try to destroy all hierarchies by force (via government “equalization”), but this route will surely lead us backwards toward feudalistic containment (not to mention the resulting miseries).
To solve the problem, Beran tries to determine which approach leads to more human flourishing. Based on the historical record, Beran concludes that as silly as our status pursuits may be, they do indeed lead us to Read the rest of this entry »
Stout is the president of the Sandpoint Idaho Tea Party Patriots, before which she was a homemaker, a business owner, and a social worker for low-income housing residents. Like many in the Tea Party movement, Stout was never very politically active, but has since been aroused by out-of-control spending.
When Letterman asks her to explain why she thinks things are getting worse in this country, she replies with this:
I think [it’s] the fact that we demonize business… We need to give [individual responsibility] back to people. We need to give them a sense that America is a great place to live and that you can succeed. To be satisfied living on welfare and in public housing, to me that’s sad. I want people to believe that they can do better.
This is what I like about the Tea Party movement. It is so varied and so disorganized, and there is plenty not to like, but Stout represents the Read the rest of this entry »