the tyranny of the rich

I'm all for capitalism, after all it's why my parents immigrated here and part of why I think this is the greatest country in the world. Not because of capitalism per se, but because of the specifics of the way capitalism is implemented. The American Dream is not to get rich - it is to live free. But there is an inherent conflict which drives almost the entirety of American politics. Michael Kinsley argues in a brilliant essay in Slate about that sensitive balance between capitalism and democracy:

The fall of communism 14 years ago was not the end of history, despite Francis Fukuyama's famous prediction. It was, though, pretty much the end of the argument, in most of the world, about the best way to organize society. The answer (despite quibbles over the details and a surprisingly resilient minority preference for theocracy) is democratic capitalism.

But this intellectual victory for the dynamic duo didn't resolve the tension between them. Democracy presumes and enshrines equality. Capitalism not only presumes but requires and produces inequality. How can you have a society based on equality and inequality at the same time? The classic answer is that democracy and capitalism should reign in their own separate "spheres" (philosopher Michael Walzer's term). As citizens, we are all equal. As players in the economy, we enjoy differing rewards depending on our efforts, talents, or luck.

But how do you prevent power in one from leeching into the other? In various ways, we try to police the border. Capitalism is protected from democracy, to some extent, by provisions of the Constitution that guard individuals against tyranny of the majority�for example, by forbidding the government to take your property without due process of law. Protecting democracy from capitalism is the noble intention, at least, of campaign finance laws that get enacted every couple of decades.

Separation of the spheres also depends on an unspoken deal, a nonaggression pact, between democracy's political majority and capitalism's affluent minority. The majority acknowledge that capitalism benefits all of us, even if some benefit a lot more than others. The majority also take comfort in the belief that everyone has at least a shot at scoring big. The affluent minority, meanwhile, acknowledge that their good fortune is at least in part the luck of the draw. They recognize that domestic tranquility, protection from foreign enemies, and other government functions are worth more to people with more at stake. And they retain a tiny yet prudent fear of what beast might be awakened if the fortunate folks get too greedy about protecting and enlarging their good fortune.

Kinsley points out that the Bush Administration has discarded that nonaggression pact, as part of an overall GOP playbook that has as its ultimate goal the complete destruction of limitations upon the economic sphere.

UPDATE: Lone Star points out this quote:

"If ye love wealth better than liberty, the tranquility of servitude better than the animating contest of freedom, go home from us in peace. We ask not your counsels or arms. Crouch down and lick the hands which feed you. May your chains set lightly upon you, and may posterity forget that ye were our countrymen."

-Samuel Adams, 1776

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