There is an odd distinction in modern politics: Private vs. Public. The assumption seems to be that if the “government” runs something, it is public, whereas when “private citizens” or groups of “private citizens” run something, it is private. However, “private citizen” is somewhat of an oxymoron, as “citizen” has the connotation of belonging to a political entity (most literally a city) and “government” is run by individuals or groups of individuals. A better understanding of the words “private” and “public” might be that they refer to either private or public interest. But if this is the case, things like education, healthcare, and housing are all “public” by nature, since they all serve to promote a healthier community through the care of its members. In some people’s minds, this means that the government ought to run it as a “public” service, but this is because there is no sense that “private” companies have public obligations. Instead, there is a sense that “private” companies are doing something right when they give to charities or form charitable foundations, but not that they are doing something wrong if they don’t contribute to the health of their communities through “public” works. Thus, we have an untenable situation where the government has total responsibility for public works while trying to incentivise public aid through things like tax breaks. Ultimately, the common good becomes a tug-o-war between competing groups of people, the “government” and “corporations.”
In a strict democracy, it’s all a numbers game. The more people who agree with a course of action, the more likely it will happen. The majority rules. The minority has to submit. This is of course assuming it is an absolute majority and not just a majority of the people who can and decide to “cast their vote.” Whatever the case, in a democracy, the more people who like something, the more valuable it is. Might, as they say, makes right.
The modern market wants to be a democracy, but instead of a vote (which in theory costs nothing except a little bit of time), the “majority” is decided by the amount of money behind a certain product or initiative. In the stock market, the more people buy certain stock, the more valuable it is. “See?” we seem to say. “Look at all those people buying up. It must be a good investment/a valuable product/a good thing.”
This happens of course on a local level. If a rich person (or even a middle class person) buys a house in a neighborhood, the neighborhood increases in value. (I mean, if a poor person buys a house in a neighborhood, it doesn’t say anything about the neighborhood since poor people “have no choice.”) Of course, as rich people buy up a neighborhood and increase the property value, poor people can’t afford to buy in the neighborhood. The value of the land and the houses has nothing to do with any intrinsic value of the land and the houses, but with how many people are buying there. The houses and land are the same before and after the sale.
Sure, the rich can afford to improve the house and land in appearance, but property values are based more on whether there are sales being made (and thus money being invested in the neighborhood) than on what the neighborhood looks like. In this way, the neighborhoods where there is more money are more valuable in the modern market mentality.
So too with any local services. Because we live in a “competition economy,” money is the deciding factor on whether something is worth keeping in the neighborhood. For example, a big-box hardware store can afford to build a new location where there is a locally owned and operated hardware store. It can also afford to sell more at a lower price. This means that although the people in the neighborhood have been happy to go to the other hardware store, it won’t win the competition because it doesn’t have as much money to compete. Furthermore, the people in the neighborhood will pay for the cheaper store and thus will cast their monetary vote for that store.
Those that are “more economically successful“ have a greater influence on the market than those who are “less.” In other words, the rich can do things the poor can’t, even if the poor have a better product. The only way the poorer people can compete is if they can get enough rich people to cast their monetary vote for them.
This obsession with a competitive, consumption-driven, majoritarian market translates nicely into the other realms of political life. The more money that goes into a certain initiative or candidate, the more important and valuable it seems. After all, without the support of money, nothing can get done. However, in a country split by special and individual interests, the richer special groups and individuals will always hold sway regardless of the “right” or “wrong.” Our political and economic system is, in fact, a behemoth of bribery. Political action is bought and sold daily. The federal government can refuse to give states federal funding if they don’t make the correct laws. There is no political will where there is no money.
This is what we get if we insist on the absolute neutral equality of political and economic action. When we allow any industry that can “succeed” and bring in money to the economy, we lose sight of any sense of something’s intrinsic worth. As long as enough people are investing in something, it is good. As long as enough people want a politician or a political platform, no matter how tenuously they want it, we have to accept it. After all, we live by social contract decided by a majority. Agreement is truth.
The problem is, money can buy agreement. Money can buy loyalty. Money can buy support. If only our personal interest is at stake, money can make anything palatable because it allows me to pursue my interest even if at the expense of something that we don’t like. Money is a moral equalizer.
And if that’s not a problem, I’m not sure what is.
As George Orwell once wrote: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” Can we have a society of perfect equality? Or perhaps most importantly, should we? What does equality mean? Are “all men created equal?”
It is interesting to note that not everyone has the same definition of equality, or, I suppose more accurately, not everyone agrees on what should be equal. When the Founding Fathers stated that “all men are created equal,” they certainly weren’t talking about the black slave, and some weren’t talking about women or Catholics either. However, this aside, what “all men” were “equal” in were certain inalienable rights. Everyone (except those excluded) was endowed by the Creator with the right to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness, among other less explicitly mentioned rights.
This idea of “equal rights” which is so fundamental to the American way of life is a little misleading. For one thing, there has always been a system of justice designed to deprive criminals of life, liberty, and/or property (sometimes considered analogous to happiness, somehow); there are some who don’t deserve to exercise their rights, even if they have them. Furthermore, where there is a dispute between individuals, an appeal to “equal rights” falls flat on its face. Whoever adjudicates the dispute must decide whose “rights” are more important.
It is often hard to exercise rights without the means to do it. For example, according to the Bill of Rights, Americans have the right to bear arms (I won’t go into the debate over this amendment right now). Not everyone can afford a gun (or a sword, or a spear, or a bow and arrow, etc.) not to mention that not everyone can afford the same kind of gun. As to the right to Life mentioned in the Declaration of Independence, not everyone has the power to decide who lives and who dies, but some people do! Not only are there lawmakers who decide what is considered a crime deserving of death, but there are also those with the social capital to influence these decisions. Furthermore, not everyone dies or lives according to his or her choice. Some are unable to provide for themselves or their families and thus their “right to life” is not fully exercised.
So, clearly “equal rights” are not absolute in our society, and if there are any rights that should be absolute, it is not entirely clear which they should be. Let us, for now, set aside the question of rights.
Perhaps, then, equality of means is what proponents of an equal society are pursuing. A perfect society is one in which everyone has the same things so that they can do and get the same things, so that no one has an advantage over the other. On the screen, it looks great. Let us not be satisfied with “on the screen” however. Imagine, if you will, that it was possible for everyone to have the same things. This would either mean that everything was shared by everyone or else that every single person owned an instance of every single thing. Ultimately, the first is the collectivist’s dream, the second, the individualist’s. However, they are both nightmares.
If everything is shared by everyone, who makes sure that everyone gets to share equally in that which is shared? If there is a farm that is shared by everyone, who farms it? If everyone who shares it takes turns farming, who decides who works when? Not everyone can farm well. Some are weaker physically, others are allergic to certain plants, etc. Clearly not everyone can work equally on the farm, so do they get less of a share of the farm? Should only those who can farm well be allowed to share in the crop? This clearly flies in the face of the “equality” first posited. Decisions have to be made by someone as to how things are shared. Things get even more complicated when we think about the fact that life demands much more than just farming. The more that is “shared” the greater the need for a decision-making authority to ensure justice.
In the individualist’s nightmare, each person owns one of everything. However, not every single farm is equal. Even if each person receives an equal size farm with an equal amount of seed, the harvest will be different in each place, not to mention the inequality already mentioned above; not everyone can farm well. To give each person everything needed for survival so that he or she need not depend on anyone else is to give everyone more than they can properly handle.
Instead of these nightmares, we of course can see that reality demands that not everyone have the same things. Inequality is a necessary part of any work toward a common end. A new building needs a leader of design and a leader of construction not to mention people to do the various tasks for each area. No one can do everything and not everyone can do something.
In the end, “equality of means” is both undesirable and impossible. After all, one of the most important “means” that we have is our own strengths, and these are all inherently different and unequal. Contrary to popular belief, this inequality is of utmost importance in reaching our common goals. Not everyone will be or can be a politician. Not everyone will be or can be a farmer, but we need people who do each if we are to reach the goal of a just society.
There is very little in which humans are naturally equal. There is always the stronger and the weaker in nature. Instead of focusing on equality, perhaps we should, as a society, be focusing on mutual cooperation within the inequality that is inherent in nature. A proper and useful distribution of rights, obligations, and means will always be unequal, and it is the only way we can work for a just society.
One of the early debates about the governing and growth of America was how best to promote and protect economic independence. Surprisingly, both major viewpoints involved direct government action whether in the form of tariffs, subsidies, or other incentives. It was so important to the Founding Fathers that we not depend on imports or lending from other nations but instead produce our own goods and provide our own labor. To both Hamilton and Jefferson, this is what constituted a free economy, one that was independent of foreign pressure.
How our ideas of a free economy have changed! Instead of seeing it as a network of mutually beneficial (and nationally beneficial) industries that must be preserved in order to maintain a healthy and free civic order, we now see it as a system of allowing any economic unit the freedom to do with its money what it wishes, no matter the effect on the civic or moral realm. A free market philosophy tells us that industries go where the greatest profit can be found and that restriction on trade results in less economic movement and therefore less economic growth.
If I recall correctly, the health of a national economy is not how measured by how many economic connections a nation has made globally but GDP, Gross Domestic Product. I am no economist, but it seems to me that the more our production and services are outsourced via a “free” market the worse our economy becomes. As our economy worsens and we depend more and more on foreign credit and imports, the less free America becomes.
This is of course only relevant if we believe that a nation is more than just an agreement by individuals to coexist for the benefit of each. If the freedom of corporations and individuals to make money in whatever manner they wish is more important to us than the general economic and civic health of our cities and nation, then we should indeed embrace a free market philosophy.
I argue instead that ensuring the general political welfare, including economy, of our cities and families is a more important consideration than the ability of certain economic actors to do with their money whatever they will. We are not men with rights but no obligations. We can not ensure the rights of the people without acknowledging that we as individuals and as a society have an obligation toward them. A political and economic philosophy that denies this is unsustainable, for we can not receive that which is not first given and if we ought to receive something, then someone ought to give it.
A truly independent economy is one that is self-supported and self-sustaining through the regular exchange of goods according to the goals and needs of a community. If we examine this more closely, however, we will see that although we call it an independent economy relative to other communities or outside forces, there are two ways in which all economies are necessarily dependent.
One, not all communities have the resources to provide for all the needs of its members. An exchange between communities then becomes necessary. This is the basis of trade, namely that one person or group has something that another needs or wants. This establishes an interdependent economy and it can take many forms depending on the resources of the various communities. Sometimes it results in the assimilation of one community into the other to more effectively serve the needs of the members.
And secondly, within a community, this interdependency is more pronounced. In a family, each member must cooperate in order to make the household run well and for interactions with other families to be peaceful and cooperative. Each family, each group, and each individual in a community must cooperate in order for the safety of the members and so that the common goals and needs of the members are met.
This cooperation, which is both easier and more effective on a local level, is what makes an economy self-supported and self-sustaining. The freedom that a community experiences when it is self-supported and self-sustaining is the basis for civic order, but it not an autonomous freedom nor is it a freedom absolutely. In order for an action or initiative to be both truly human and effective, it must be ordered. Ordering requires authority and accountability. In other words it requires a plan, someone to communicate the plan, and an agreement to work according to the plan. Our freedom, then, must always submits to some authority and in all human activity, an authority inevitably arises.
And this is why the Founding Fathers weren’t economic libertarians. They knew that if our goal was economic independence, there had to be a plan and thus some authority to which to submit. Of course the nature of that authority, its scope, is the next question and one which divided the Founding Fathers.
Οικονομια (oikonomia) is a Greek word meaning “the rule of a household.” This referred first and foremost to the management of the wealth and property of a ancient Greek family. This is where we get the word “economy.”
Of course, it did not stop there, for it is not only families that have wealth and property; states do as well. If a state is ruled by a monarch, the royal treasury belongs to the king and his family, as does the responsibility to care for the needs of the people from said treasury. In modern nation-states where the government is typically representative, the treasury does not belong to one man and his family, but to all families within the state, though it is only through representatives that these families exercise their responsibility to the needs of the people.
Every nation has an economy bolstered by production and trade. The labour of the people is the backbone of the economy for as we know, where there is no work, there is entropy. However, modern times have seen economies that use speculation, printing of money, and bureaucratic services to make the money move (which is apparently the sign of a healthy economy.) However, not even these economies can escape the unavoidable dependence on labour and production.
As technology develops and global connectivity grows, the markets, both labour and speculative, grow too. No longer are the major speculators and major corporations dependent on local production and trade because global communication and transportation has made it possible to find labour anywhere and move products and communicate services over vast distances.
We have all experienced this. We would generally, however, prefer to talk to those offering services to us in person and know who it is who is working for us and that they are not being treated badly. We would also prefer to work close to home ourselves and not have to uproot our families and move because our employer has decided to move. However, we don’t always get what we want.
This open, constantly moving economy has consequences. The idea is that a larger economy will result in more available wealth to be moved around. And of course it does, but it also means that that wealth can be moved almost anywhere in the world with no major loss. If the wealth of our family is tied to a job dependent on a state and national economy that answers to national and international corporations, those corporations are essentially in charge of the treasury of nation and state and are therefore responsible for the people. However, these corporations can find labour and conduct services anywhere and are not dependent on local markets for clientele. This means that the providers of services and products have no incentive to stay in one place or another. Because of this, they hold the people hostage insofar as they have the power to threaten evacuation for any reason.
Recently, we have seen major corporations, providers of jobs and services, threaten to boycott states (and thus to dramatically damage their economies) because of social and political values held by the people of the state. The ability of the people to maintain traditions, customs, and values is compromised by their dependence on a fickle and disinterested master. Globalization has taken proper political and social agency from the members of communities and given it to a small group of men and women disconnected from any of the communities they supposedly serve.
Not only is this completely antithetical to the idea of popular sovereignty so dear to the American people, more importantly it is anti-human. If our political and social agency is taken away, our participation in truly human flourishing is diminished. This can only result in tyranny and abuse. A diminished humanity is just one step toward dehumanization and ultimately dehumanization leads to slavery, torture, and death.
When, however, the providers of labour and services are local and production serves local needs first, our values and traditions are developed and maintained, unhindered by fear of outside reprisal and the threat of dehumanization. Our economies should truly be “rule of a household” with all the responsibility that entails.