Reimagining American Community

Occupy Dollar


 friend, whom I will call Tina, recently got into one of those unpleasant email arguments with a former schoolmate who was bashing Occupy Wall Street and the liberal left generally. Tina’s sparring partner, whom I will call Fred, is a middle-aged man of good education and, apparently, comfortable means.

Tina found incredible Fred’s bland acceptance of America’s present status quo, with its vast inequalities. His defense of inequality goes like this. First of all, that famous 1% use their money, after all, mostly for the social good. Bill Gates and Warren Buffet give away most of their money to the Gates Foundation. John and Theresa Heinz Kerry may have spent $100 million or so on their mansions, but they are putting $600 million into the Heinz foundation.

What is more, Fred continues:

The vast majority of people [emphasis mine] do not have a problem with the best, most talented and successful individual citizens making lots of money.  I have never heard any liberals complaining about Tiger Woods and Bill Cosby making $100 million apiece, nor anyone complain about the Rolling Stones, or the Beatles and others making $200 million, nor Bill Gates and Steve Jobs making billions of dollars.

From the time of Aristotle, it was recognized that some people are gold medal winners, and some people finish last.  There is a hierarchy of values in the world.  There are beautiful mountains and ugly mountains, big animals and small animals, smart and less smart, hard working and less hard working.  It is a naturally occurring phenomenon, and to spend time obsessing about the unequal distribution of money is no different than arguing against the unequal distribution of brains, or height, or speed, or focus, or ambition, etc.  As long as criminals such as Madoff and the Enron gang go to jail, along with bank robbers, muggers, burglars, and car thieves, people are satisfied with the fairness of the nation.

It was the appeal to Aristotle that particularly caught my attention.  It is true that for Aristotle there existed greater goods and lesser goods, excellence and its absence. But what Fred has described here is pure Locke, not Aristotle, and to conflate the two is practically a crime.

Fred begins by calling out ‘liberals’ for being hypocrites. If liberals are going to complain about corporate inequality, why not complain about the unequal pay of rock musicians too?

In fact, as Pierre Manent reminds us, liberals of all stripes have always believed in equality.[1] Tocqueville found that, for Americans, the idea of equality was imbibed with mother’s milk. That is why America is the quintessentially liberal civilization.  In America, if the servant serves the millionaire, it can only be because of a contract, and not because some men deserved greater deference than others.  We reject the aristocratic principle. No one is our superior in wisdom or pedigree. That is why there can be no Downton Abbeys here!

And yet, as noted earlier, there are nonetheless two types of liberalism. One type infers from the (universally-shared) premise of equality that all should enjoy roughly equal conditions and exactly equal opportunity. This is the liberalism Fred condemns.

The other type of liberalism, to which Fred belongs, focuses on the equality of individuals at the moment of exchange. This liberal tradition (which has remained essentially the same from Locke to Hayek to Koch Brothers) holds that justice is always already achieved so long as private property is secure. Why is that? Because wealth, which is simply accumulated property, is created by a process where some men make money by forming contracts with other men. But to the extent that these are truly contracts, both parties must be acting freely in pursuit of their own self-interest, which means that the lots of both parties are being improved. As Locke put it, only ‘quibblers’ would then start making a fuss about who gets more.

What America increasingly embraces is liberalism of this second type.  Which explains why, over the past 30 years, we have seen wealth accumulate and concentrate without visible limit. Lacking any mechanism for the redistribution of wealth (which could only be the work of quibblers and socialists), lacking even any institution that would adjust wages to productivity, we are consigned to the brutal logic of compound interest. What we observe today is not the 20:1 ratio of CEO to worker income that you see in modern Japan, or the 40:1 ratio that still obtained in the U.S. a generation ago. Now it is 500:1.

So, where does Aristotle fit in? Aristotle would reject both the first and the second strands of liberalism, but he would be particularly repelled by the second. He would reject first of all the premise that we are individuals. For Aristotle we are social creatures. He would reject the premise that excellence has anything to do with the accumulation of wealth. He would reject the lack of limits which Fred celebrates as a sign of a “hierarchy of values.”  In all of Aristotelian politics and ethics the over-arching concepts are balance and limit.

To be sure, for Aristotle, excellence entails making a contribution to the moral and physical flourishing of one’s city as a whole (what we call today our community). And so he might well approve of the wealthy contributing to the common good by means of their philanthropic foundations.

But there are limits. In Politics (Book III) Aristotle writes that those who contribute more to the well-being of the city should receive somewhat more in terms of wealth. Perhaps Aristotle would not object to the Beatles making their millions. But the extremes of inequality we see in America today stem not from rock musicians, but from specialists in making money from money: from speculators and monopolists and merger experts who create nothing except money. Nowhere does Aristotle identify human flourishing with the making of money. To the contrary, Aristotle specifically condemned money-making as something which knows no natural limit and which therefore necessarily corrupts the common good.

What about Fred’s claim that the ancients respected hierarchy – had a “hierarchy of values,” as do today’s capitalists?  But in fact Fred does not respect hierarchy.  For Fred, the common view is already a sort of proof of the truth of a thing.  It is a sort of proof for him that “the vast majority of people do not have a problem with the best, most talented and successful individual citizens making lots of money.”

Now, perhaps it is silly to make too much of this claim, which was a bit of a throw-away phrase, but one can’t help being reminded, nonetheless, of another of Tocqueville’s observations about the liberal American mentality, that same mentality which assumes the spiritual equality of every man. For such an American, truth is always found on the side of the majority.

Why is this? Why should truth reside there, instead of, say, in the brilliant mind of Aristotle? Tocqueville reasons as follows: “The nearer men are to a common level of uniformity … the readier they are to trust the mass … In times of equality men, being so like each other, have no confidence in others, but this same likeness leads them to place almost unlimited confidence in the judgment of the public. For they think it is not unreasonable that, all having the same means of knowledge, truth will be found on the side of the majority.” The conclusion of this passage is hair-raising: “I know [continues Tocqueville] of no country in which, speaking generally, there is less independence of mind and true freedom of discussion than in America” (cited in Manent, An Intellectual History of Liberalism, 110).

If those who are in Fred’s camp want to appeal to authority, let them do it honestly. Let them appeal to Locke, or Hayek, or Ayn Rand, and leave Aristotle alone.

[1] The following analysis owes much to Pierre Manent’s An Intellectual History of Liberalism (Princeton, 1994).

About the Author
Paul Grenier grew up in a working class northern California suburb. While his New England father was out building factories and shopping malls, his Austrian WWII refugee mother was instilling in him a love for Tolstoy. The result has been something of a split professional personality. Currently he does urban redevelopment work by day, and writes, translates or philosophizes with Russian friends by night. In the past he has worked as a simultaneous (Russian-English) interpreter and as a researcher and writer at a New York think tank. He has written for the Huffington Post, the Baltimore Sun, Godspy, and Second Spring, among other places (torture or city architecture being the most frequent topics). Paul enjoys re-reading Jane Austen and Harry Potter novels in Spanish. He gets a thrill from teaching teenagers at St. Nicholas Orthodox Cathedral in Washington, D.C., a little gig he recently took on with the support of his wonderful wife and co-teacher, Svetlana. Despite his best efforts to be sociable, he often retreats into a (Platonic) cave and refuses to come out for tea.