“Nor was there anyone among them who lacked; for all who were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of the things that were sold, and laid [them] at the apostles’ feet; and they distributed to each as anyone had need.” - Acts4: 34 &35
When early christian communities formed and they shared equally all their worldly possessions, who would have thought that this gesture would be viewed by some as a source of immorality. The notion that we all share much in common has a tradition that goes back beyond the time of the gospels but which has been slowly eroding since corporate personhood came into being back in the 19 century, making a handful of people very wealthy. Laws protecting their monopoly on wealth were successfully challenged at the end of that century and into the early decades of the 20th century.
But a hundred years later we are once again battling those elite few who would re-establish those conditions where people who work hard and play by the rules often find themselves on the opposite side of forces that control law making bodies and the courts. As a result, the disparity between the wealthiest and everyone else has grown significantly and more people are now finding themselves at or below poverty levels as the middle class slowly shrinks.
In his recent column, conservative economist Walter E. Williams attempts to make a case linking immorality to our current economic crisis. Though I would agree that the behavior of some that created our current crisis was deplorable and immoral, I would not be fingering the same people who Mr. Williams seems to be.
Like a broken record, Mr. Williams repeats a theme that he has hit on many times in his columns. He insists that the social contract the people have made with their government to provide for the weakest amongst us is akin to theft. Yet poll after poll seems to reflect the opposite and have most Americans in support of a payroll deduction that helps fend off poverty for those elderly, small children and handicapped individuals in our society that tend to fall through the cracks of a free market economy.
Greed Trumps Need
Without any regard for the recent actions of those who inhabit Wall Street and who carelessly risked the fortunes of many Americans, sending the global economy into a downward spiral, Walter Williams wants to prop up the red-herring about entitlement programs and their existence for being the source of immorality in our country. To Mr. Williams it’s the government who has robbed us of our jobs, homes and savings. The financial captains of Wall Street are mere victims of some invisible hand of the market and need to be protected against the regulations of government put in place to prevent abuses with our money. Yet another misperception by Williams and the libertarian theology he subscribes to.
Williams seems to be oblivious of the human element of greed that permeates much of the financial private sector and like many who support his ideological view, is convinced a strong ethical character pervades corporate America. To concede that greed by a few rather than need by many is the main factor in this country’s moral demise would be counter productive to the laissez-faire view that people like Williams hold. Greed in laissez-faire terms is just another name for fulfilling self-interests that motivate people to seek financial gain for themselves believing that society as a whole will also benefit. To people like Williams, Milton Friedman and Ayn Rand, the Gordon Gecko character in the movie “Wall Street” would be seen as a heroic figure.
But as Harvard professor Michael J. Sandel points out in his book on justice “Greed is a vice, a bad way of being, especially when it makes people oblivious to the suffering of others. More than a personal vice, it is at odds with civic virtue.(emphasis mine) In times of trouble, a good society pulls together. Rather than press for maximum advantage, people look out for one another. A society in which people exploit their neighbors for financial gain in times of crisis is not a good society. Excessive greed is therefore a vice that a good society should discourage if it can.” (Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? p.7)
Yet Williams never seems to point out the lapses in moral behavior by the bankers and wealthy investors within society and instead goes after a system that benefits those who are often the victims of greed. In doing so he makes a good case I think that calls his own morality into question.
In his book, “Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do” Sandel points out a difference between two opposing views. One from the libertarian, laissez-faire side; the other from an egalitarian frame of reference:
“ … some of the most hard-fought political arguments of our time take place between two rival camps within it — the laissez-faire camp and the fairness camp. Leading the laissez-faire camp are free-market libertarians who believe that justice consists in respecting and upholding the voluntary choices made by consenting adults. The fairness camp contains theorists of a more egalitarian bent. They argue that unfettered markets are neither just nor free. In their view, justice requires policies that remedy social and economic disadvantages and give everyone a fair chance at success.” (p. 20)
Williams plants himself firmly in the laissez-faire, libertarian camp, whose approach to social issues rests primarily on the premise that “markets promote the welfare of society as a whole by providing incentives for people to work hard supplying the goods [and services] that other people want”. (Justice p.6) How exactly small children, the elderly and the mentally and physically handicapped are fairly represented in this scheme is ignored by people who think like Williams, unless of course we want to exploit them despite their limitations.
In contemplating whether are not Americans today are virtuous and moral he focuses almost exclusively on those who support taxing all wages to support Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid and how it accounts for nearly half of federal spending. Revealing as he does that monetary considerations outweigh social responsibility, Williams seems willing to allow suffering and depravations that accompany poverty. To me, this raises a moral qualm.
This notion is hit upon in Sandel’s book:
Taken to it’s extreme a libertarian’s “idea of self-ownership, consistently applied, has implications that only an ardent libertarian could love – an unfettered market without a safety net for those who fall behind; a minimal state that rules out most measures to ease inequality and promote the common good; and a celebration of consent so complete that it permits self-inflicted affronts to human dignity such as consensual cannibalism or selling oneself into slavery.” (Justice p103)
Williams would likely inject that charitable organizations would fill the gap where free market economies fall short. Though I agree that charitable organizations fulfill a great need, I am not as naive as he appears to be to think that such personal choices suffice to meet critical economic deprivations in this country. If this practice alone were sufficient to temporarily provide for those who fall between the cracks and find themselves destitute through conditions beyond their control, then the need for federal programs aimed at this population would likely never have arisen.
The fact is though that individual charities fall way short of meeting the needs of a growing population who lack the resources within a free market society to provide basic essentials for themselves and their families. When economic hard times occur as they often do, charities are pressed harder to provide not only for those who lack the means to actively participate in our economy due to age and physical limitations but also to fill the void at times when more people who can find themselves unable to when jobs dry up.
To add insult to injury, recent testimony from Frank J. Sammartino, the assistant director for tax analysis from the Congressional Budget Office shows that though the wealthiest give slightly more of their income to charitable organizations, only 4% of that goes to organizations devoted to helping meet basic needs while those who make below $200,000 give on average about 11%. The wealthy tend to give significantly more to health and education organizations. Institutions that they and their progeny can benefit from over other charitable organizations. Would billionaire David Koch have given over $500 million to cancer research had he not been diagnosed with prostate cancer back in 2004?
The Side Benefits of Public Programs
In the documentary “The Corporation”, Noam Chomsky points out the side benefits of public institutions, even when they run at a loss.
Public institutions … may purposely run at a loss because of the side benefits. So for example if a public steel industry, runs at a loss, it’s providing cheap steel to other industries. Maybe that’s a good thing. Public institutions can have a counter-cyclic property. So that means that they can maintain employment in periods of recession, which increases demand, which helps to get us out of a recession.
I bring this up here because the argument that spending in the public sector is always detrimental to our economy is not an absolute. In providing health care services to those in our society that have fallen through the cracks, even if it’s done at a loss, there are counter-cyclic advantages to this. Without federal aid in the form of Medicare and Medicaid most low and middle-income families would be hard pressed to provide the time and financial means to support a handicapped child or a spouse with a long-term illness or an aging parent who needs assisted living care. Without unemployment benefits able workers would find themselves deeper in debt before regaining employment. Their productivity at work could suffer from their need to deal with these issue monetarily and emotionally and those lost hours will have a negative effect on our economy.
And then there of course are those, especially the elderly, who have no family to speak of to assist them in their time of need. What are to be done with such people? A humane society will have to pay for their care but will they do so at a level that respects these disadvantaged souls or simply warehouse them and treat them as unclaimed freight?
Virtue Has No Self-Interests
Our system of entitlements in this country is a mark of a civilized society that seeks to remedy the shortfalls of our free market economic system. There are areas we can address that will reduce costs for necessary programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid but they don’t have to reduce essential care for those who can’t afford what “the greatest health care system in the world” makes available for financially successful people. We can eliminate fraud within the private sector that costs billions each year, initiate some means testing, eliminate unnecessary medical tests that have been proven ineffective and notch up the rate people are taxed on to pay for these benefits.
The germ that infects the thought of people who feel they are unduly burdened to provide for the powerless in this country have a convenient view of morality that ignores the consequences of their actions. Once this germ infiltrates so deeply into the social mindset of a people, virtue suffers a blow. Securing individual wealth to the detriment of those who find themselves outside the means to provide for themselves may be “naturally” appealing to many but to assert it has greater moral value is a fundamentally flawed philosophy.
“We are not rich by what we possess but by what we can do without.” - Immanuel Kant