On the season finale of Real Time with Bill Maher, Bill O’Reilly said something interesting. No, really. Toward the end of their discussion about the Bush tax cuts and whether the wealthy could withstand the potential 3% bump, O’Reilly responded: “the philosophy is that income redistribution isn’t in the Constitution. It wasn’t how the country was set up. This is a capitalistic society.” That comment nagged at me for a while until I figured out why: it’s wrong. I’m not trying to take shots at O’Reilly. Granted, he’s made some onerous comments in the past, but compared to the gaggle of dimwitted cheerleaders and special needs adults that is Murdochia, O’Reilly is Socrates. But, in this case, he was wrong. And it’s a wrongness that cuts to the heart of many of our differences in this country, and some of the animosity that has infected the political process.
Here’s the wrong part: We don’t “live in a capitalistic society.” We work in a capitalist system. We live in a democratic society. And just to make sure, I checked what the Preamble to the Constitution had to say about capitalism, as I seemed to remember it being more of a statement of basic human rights than an economic manifesto:
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
Then I checked the history of capitalism:
“… the American economy became predominantly capitalist only by 1900. The earlier years fall into three periods. The first, from 1600 to 1790, is characterized by handicraft-subsistence production alongside elements of a semi-capitalist economy stemming from commercial production of tobacco. The most commercialized sectors of the economy were predominantly staffed by enslaved and semi-enslaved workers. During the second period, 1790-1865, several industries became organized along capitalist lines and some sectors of agriculture lost their subsistence character until by the period's end agriculture as a whole was producing for the market. A working class of free and unfree elements is then growing rapidly. In the third period, 1865-1920, economic development attains an extraordinary pace as industry and, increasingly, agriculture becomes subject to capitalist forces...”
So, no capitalism, as such, around the time of the Constitution. Just a “semi-capitalist economy” stemming from tobacco production “staffed by enslaved and semi-enslaved workers” neither of which I’d be too eager to brag about. Not that I’m knocking capitalism. I’m not even cynical about it, to the point of paraphrasing Churchill’s line about democracy being “the worst form of government, except for all the rest.” Abuses aside, capitalism works because it values the individual human spirit and allows us to use our talents, take risks, work hard, and reap the benefits of that hard work. That’s why communism imploded. You can’t stifle that spirit. When you try, people tend to rebel, and you eventually find yourself in need of a totalitarian regime to keep them in check. Not exactly the dictatorship of the proletariat. More like the dictatorship of the dictatorship.
In a capitalist system, we’re free to pursue individual goals and chase material wealth. But while that tends to be our definition of success and the good life, individual achievement is not the whole of our existence. Seen with a narrow focus, we work for ourselves. But from a broader point of view, we ultimately work for each other. Take the richest person you can think of. No matter how much money they have, they still need people to work for them. Someone’s got to build the mansions, cut the lawns, fly the private planes, drive the limos, cook the meals, cut the grass, do the taxes… We’re not rocks or islands. Even the richest among us needs other people.
When Bernie Madoff was sent to prison, a part of me wanted to let him stay in his Manhattan apartment, and keep all his money. But with an agreement among the rest of us that no one will work for him. No one sends electricity to his apartment, cooks his meals, sells him food, drives his cars, flies his planes. It would have been interesting to see the ultimate worthlessness of the money he stole if no one would accept any of it. He would’ve starved to death, lousy with cash. Desperate to stay alive, maybe he would’ve tried to eat it.
Which brings me back to O’Reilly’s wrongness as it pertains to the current political situation, as Republicans in the new Congress savor their recent victories and, with blood surging to their extremities, prepare to cut the deficit by going after the so-called entitlement programs – Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid -- all part of an overall attempt to turn the Obama administration into Welcome Back Carter. But their zeal seems to go beyond trimming money from these programs to the illegitimacy of the programs themselves. Their rhetoric is laced with references to what is American and Constitutional. Even the word “entitlement” is said with a derogatory sneer, revealing that they see these programs as government handouts for the weak and lazy, as opposed to programs designed to protect the least fortunate among us, or take care of people when they get old and sick.
For people who tend to be skeptical about evolution, many Republicans seem to have no problem with economic evolution -- survival of the wealthiest. But what is Constitutional, American, even Christian if you roll that way, is compassion and concern for the least fortunate among us. An acknowledgement that our value as individuals isn’t based on our success as wage-earners. No one’s talking about private jets for everyone. How about just making sure that people have the basics of life: food, shelter, education, health care? Things most people would agree fall under the heading of “the general welfare.”
For all the recent squawking about “our freedoms,” many Americans don’t seem to get the relationship between freedom and responsibility. We think that freedom means you do whatever the hell you want, make as much as you want, and no one can stop you. And to an extent, it does. But in a larger sense it refers to our common human value and responsibility to each other. It’s not income redistribution to acknowledge that responsibility. It’s “we, the people…” Not “we, the rich,” “we, the privileged,” or “we, the presently employed.” “We, the people.” All of us. When considering the value of an individual, and what they’re entitled to, our democratic society should trump our capitalist system. It doesn’t always. But it should.