As usual, Sam Harris has posted another thought-provoking essay, this one admonishing the wealthy in this country to quit thinking about themselves and consider helping the country. More importantly, he points out that we are a country deluded by fantasies about the wealthy, the manner in which their wealth was attained, and the constant Republican insistence that if we just cut education, infrastructure, the federal workforce and a host of other domestic programs and let the rich keep what they earn, we would all be much better off.
I especially like Harris’ assessment of the mythology of self-reliance:
To make matters more difficult, Americans have made a religious fetish of something called “self-reliance.” Most seem to think that while a person may not be responsible for the opportunities he gets in life, each is entirely responsible for what he makes of these opportunities. This is, without question, a false view of the human condition. Consider the biography of any “self-made” American, from Benjamin Franklin on down, and you will find that his success was entirely dependent on background conditions that he did not make, and of which he was a mere beneficiary. There is not a person on earth who chose his genome, or the country of his birth, or the political and economic conditions that prevailed at moments crucial to his progress. Consequently, no one is responsible for his intelligence, range of talents, or ability to do productive work. If you have struggled to make the most of what Nature gave you, you must still admit that Nature also gave you the ability and inclination to struggle. How much credit do I deserve for not having Down syndrome or any other disorder that would make my current work impossible? None whatsoever. And yet devotees of self-reliance rail against those who would receive entitlements of various sorts–health care, education, etc.–while feeling unselfconsciously entitled to their relative good fortune. Yes, we must encourage people to work to the best of their abilities and discourage free riders wherever we can–but it seems only decent at this moment to admit how much luck is required to succeed at anything in this life. Those who have been especially lucky–the smart, well-connected, and rich–should count their blessings, and then share some of these blessings with the rest of society.
I absolutely detest those rich individuals who claim to have worked for their money and achieved it simply because they were smarter, worked harder, or are somehow better than the rest of us. I’m sure there are a few who did, but their number is miniscule. The majority inherited their wealth, or, since Reagan, spent enough of it to fix the political system so that their future earnings could be protected from investing it in the country. They bought up media like FOX and right-wing radio so that the myth of the self-reliant rich could be perpetrated across the country. And they invested in churches so that Jesus’ original message on the irrelevancy of the rich could be re-written to justify the pursuit of wealth and keep the rest of us peasants thinking that we could “someday become rich like them” (the south bought into the lie; they continue to vote Republican and yet largely remain the poorest section of the country).
Personally, I am tired of hearing about the rich and wealthy in this country. They have no allegiance to this country or its principles; their sole purpose in life is collect as much wealth as humanly possible and make the rest of us servants who will fight their wars for them and change their bedding, nanny their kids, clean their swimming pools and otherwise stay out of their way. I appreciate Sam Harris’ plea to the rich that they engage in a little more philanthropy…but I don’t place that much stock in the personal integrity of the wealthy.
Harris asks: “Just how much inequality can free people endure? “. I think history holds the answer. My son came home from college and we were discussing something he had learned about 18th century France and attempts by the monarchy to get the rich to pay a little more to help the nation along. Of course, the rich refused (all of their wealth was completely derived from “self-reliance” don’t you know….). “So what happened after that?” I asked. He thought for a minute…”I think the peasants rebelled”…..
UPDATE: Jerry Coyne has a good post on Harris’ article up at Why Evolution Is True. I like the title: Land of the free-and unequal.