A Rich Country
Hugh Mercer Curtler
Originally published in the December 2012 issue of Empirical
In one of his travel notes written in 1788, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “What a cruel reflection, that a rich country cannot long be a free one.” He was even then concerned about America’s preoccupation with the accumulation of wealth as an end in itself. As Jefferson saw it, the reason wealth interferes with freedom is to be found in the captive nature of avarice.
As it happens, Aristotle had the same thought more than two thousand years before Jefferson when he attributed the breakdown of aristocracies to the unnecessary accumulation of wealth; the aristocracy degenerated into an oligarchy, rule by the rich. The problem as Aristotle saw it was that the rulers lose sight of the common good out of a growing concern with their own self-interest.
Jefferson, along with other eighteenth-century American thinkers, came to call concern with the common good “public virtue.” It was supposed to be a republican virtue and should keep men away from the lure of self-interest and the accumulation of unnecessary wealth and luxuries. But both of these thinkers were putting their fingers on a central problem that worried the founders of this nation: what are the effects of unnecessary wealth on a republic?
In The Creation of the American Republic 1776-1787, Gordon Wood, quoting from a sermon delivered in 1778 by the Rev. Payson, has this interesting paragraph for us to ponder: Because it was commonly understood that “the exorbitant wealth of individuals” had a “most baneful influence” on the maintenance of republican governments and “therefore should be carefully guarded against,” some Whigs were even willing to go so far as to advocate agrarian legislation limiting the amount of property an individual could hold and “sumptuary laws against luxury, plays, etc. and extravagant expenses in dress, diet, and the like.”
Though a number of the framers of our Constitution were themselves deists, we must recall the prevailing influence of both the Puritans and the Quakers on the minds of those who prepared the nation to revolt against England. This is especially so in an age in which the conservative element among us tends to emphasize the influence of the Christian religion on the founders of this nation while at the same time they promote the conflicting myth of free enterprise capitalism–which was never regarded as an ideal in the minds of the colonists. In fact the early colonists insisted that “commerce. . . had destroyed England’s soul”; it was beneath the true calling of human beings who are at their best when they remain close to the earth and control their appetites and desires.
Much of this thinking stemmed from their reading of the New Testament, of course. But many of them were avid readers of history and were convinced that excessive wealth and luxuries were among the major causes of the downfall of the Roman republic, which they greatly admired. They advocated “enterprise,” to be sure, but there were both legal and moral restraints in many of the colonies against the unlimited gathering of wealth and luxuries–laws against entail, primogeniture, and even monopolies. Indeed, as Wood tells us, “A preliminary draft of Pennsylvania’s Declaration of Rights even contained an article stating ‘that an enormous Proportion of Property vested in a few individuals is dangerous to the Rights and destructive of the Common Happiness of Mankind,’ and therefore should be discouraged by the laws of the state.”
The very problems the colonists were most concerned about have come to pass largely as a result of the combination of the role of very wealthy individuals–like the Koch brothers–and multi-nationals, who have bottomless pockets when it comes to playing poker at the political table. The rest of us hope to get by by bluffing. Let me expand. According to the American Association for Justice, the Koch brothers fund the political group called “American Legislative Exchange Council” that involves thousands of legislators around the country who push bills through that favor the corporations at the cost of the health and well-being of the majority of the population.
Judged from the perspective of Jefferson’s America, such people and such groups are a big part of what is wrong with this country today. As of this writing, the Koch brothers allegedly plan to spend $400 million of their hard-earned money to get Obama out of the White House and keep control of the Congress. They might succeed, of course, because money talks; and after the Citizens United decision by the Supreme Court, the amount of money spent by the wealthy on the November elections could buy a small country–or a large one that’s deep in debt. After all, the family oil business the Koch brothers own rakes in an estimated $100 billion a year. The sky’s the limit!
But note the irony in the fact that people like this will spend millions of dollars to buy politicians who will guarantee that they get to keep most if not all of their wealth in the future. I dare say they see it as an investment. Some of the wealthy 1%, I understand, even buy politicians on both sides of the political aisle.
That way they can’t lose.
The interesting question is what on earth the founders would say about this turn of events. They were suspicious of capitalism in its raw forms. As mentioned, a number of the colonies had restrictions on the unfettered growth of capitalism. They saw that as a sure way to aristocracy which they distrusted almost as much as they did royalty. Many were still wedded to the comfortable notion of mercantilism, which was what they were used to as British citizens; it favored the involvement of the government in the financial affairs of its citizens. These were men who, for the most part, knew that humans left to their own wiles would get into a dog-eat-dog fight over wealth and they didn’t want to see that either.
People like Jefferson saw the future of this country in terms of a paradigm in which people would remain close to the earth or own small businesses and earn enough money to be content and have whatever they required to live a good life, but no more. “More” was not necessary and it could lead to moral blindness. Initially the founders, especially the Southerners, didn’t even want a federal bank, though Alexander Hamilton finally persuaded them to go in that direction–as a matter of necessity. And many of the wealthy citizens helped support the young nation (and the revolution) with money out of their own pockets. This was the way to practice “public virtue.”
The attitude toward money in this country in the eighteenth century was quite different from ours now. For the most part money was seen as a means to an end, simply. There were remnants of a deep-seated medieval distrust of money and what it did to people–ultimately stemming from Christ’s admonitions regarding the rich in the New Testament. Just read Dante’s Inferno and try to figure out how many of those in Hell are there because of their relentless greed! That attitude took centuries to die out, but it is now pretty much a thing of the past as, thanks to people like John Calvin, we think that wealth is a sign of talent, ability, and even, perhaps, God’s favor. You cannot have too much. If you do, you can always go out and buy yourself a government–like the Koch brothers.
There are lessons here for us to learn. We like to think we live in a Democracy even though the founders saw it as a republic governed by representatives, not the people themselves. The people were not thought to be wise enough to govern themselves, though through education they would learn to practice public virtue and at least come to recognize those around them who were worthy of elected office. And some would become well enough educated to lead the others. This is why Jefferson established the University of Virginia: he saw education as essential, especially in a republic. Those who remained in school long enough would be recognized as especially able and elected to public office. The cream would rise to the top.
Jefferson envisioned a “natural aristocracy” governed by the brightest and best minds the country could produce. James Madison tended to agree with him–as he did on so many other issues. The idea goes back at least as far as Plato’s Republic. But it is clear that, as Aristotle foresaw, our “natural aristocracy” has degenerated into an oligarchy–given the fact that those with great wealth are the ones who choose those who govern and later tell them how to govern. And the wealthy are clearly preoccupied with their own self interest in the form of maximum profits. So Aristotle was correct in his notion of what factors lead to the degeneration of an aristocracy, even though he saw an aristocracy in a different light than Jefferson did. And Jefferson, echoing the Rev. Payson, was also correct in saying that a rich nation could not long remain a free one.
Let me explain.
By world standards ours is a very rich country, though it is the top 1% who have the bulk of the wealth. But our conviction that we are one of the freest nations on earth is based on the misperception of what freedom is: that it is a function of the number of choices we have rather than our ability to decide for ourselves what is worth choosing. We do have a great many choices, heaven knows. But this is what Isaiah Berlin called “negative liberty” and it is clearly a part of what freedom is all about–we must be free from restraint in order to act at all. And we must have a variety of things to choose from. But Berlin also focused attention on “positive liberty,” or the freedom to choose intelligently, which comes from knowledge and awareness of implications. To the extent that we are unaware of what is going on about us, we as a nation fail to achieve positive freedom. As long as the wealthy continue to control the governing body, not to mention the media, whereby they are able to divert attention with entertainment and games, we will continue to maintain the illusion that we are free because we have negative liberty. We can choose the channels we want to watch: more is better. But until or unless we also have positive liberty, unless we come to know which channels are worth watching, we are not truly free–not fully free in human terms. Free citizens know which candidates are worthy of public office and will elect them accordingly.
That was Jefferson’s dream.
It is not likely that the wealthy will give up their wealth. And as long as they can buy politicians who will pass the laws that give them tax breaks and subsidies, they will simply continue to amass photo : Charlie Nguyen wealth–while insisting all the while, incorrectly, that they are realizing the ideals of the founders of this nation. Thus, if the citizens of this nation are to regain any semblance of their full human freedom, the only hope is education whereby we come to know what freedom is and realize that it does not come down to the number of loaves of bread on the shelves at the local box store, or the number of cars at the dealership. As suggested above, freedom is a function of knowing which bread is healthy and which cars are the lemons: it is a function of knowledge and the capacity to think about what we know. Job training certainly won’t get us there, though it is what the wealthy want us to embrace and what the schools are currently focused upon. It is only through education properly conceived that we can realize this capacity to make informed choices. That is why a liberal education is vital to our political system as originally conceived: it sets us free and keeps us free.
Let us be clear about this.
Liberal education properly pursued leads to the ability to use one’s mind. One would hope, therefore, that everyone in this country, if not the world, would want as much as possible. But we confuse schooling with education, despite the fact that there are a great many people who are well-schooled but who are badly mis educated. They may be well-trained to do a particular thing, but they cannot use their minds and are captives of every intellectual fad that passes their way. This is the result of job training, and while corporate CEOs will complain from time to time that their employees can’t use their minds properly–they can’t speak coherently, write a clear memo, or organize their thoughts–they would really prefer that these people simply do what they are asked to do. Otherwise, why aren’t the corporations taking the lead to make this nation first in the developed world in education instead of being, as it is, among the last? It is not America that leads the developed world in education; it is tiny Finland.
In a republic like ours, it is essential that all citizens acquire the capacity to use their minds, to know whether or not they are being led astray–to keep an open mind, stay on top of what is going on around them, and think their way through all the nonsense to see if there is a kernel of substance at the center. Liberal education properly pursued will assuredly lead to this end. But even if schools do their job and lead us down the path to an education, it does not stop there. Education properly conceived, lasts a lifetime. In the end, it would appear that Jefferson was right. Corporate wealth which controls the political machinery in this country is at loggerheads with both the ideals of this republic, and in so far as it fosters job training in the place of education, it also limits the possibilities that the citizens of this republic can remain free.
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