In “The Lessons of History” by Will and Ariel Durant; the authors point out that the concentration of wealth in just a few powerful individuals is natural and occurs in almost all democratic societies. In a free society, since people are not really equal, those with better talents rise to the top and over time they form a small group which eventually wields great political and economic power. As time continues the wealth/power gap dividing the rich from the poor widens. Invariably when the numbers of the poor and the power of the wealthy become equal, the society reaches a tipping point. At this juncture history gives us only two options; to redistribute wealth through government intervention or redistribute property through revolution. (The American Revolution redistributed property.) Durant holds that currently (1968), the United States is once again at the tipping point. “The disparity between the rich and the poor is greater now in the United States than at any time since the Roman Empire.” The problem has continued to worsen since 1968.
This disparity within the US is evidenced in our current political climate. Occupy Wall Street is directly protesting social and economic inequality; President Obama is advocating that “the rich pay their fair share;” even The Tea Party is getting in on the opposite side of the issue by listing monetary issues in the first four of their ten platform issues. These four issues deal with excessive taxes, national debt, deficit spending and free markets.
Personally, I am inclined to advocate for smaller government, as well as the free market, but I have to admit that the current compensation packages of some corporate CEO’s does seem a little obscene. This tendency to overcompensate the top is confirmed when we compare salaries for CEO’s in other industrialized nations with those in the United States. Mitt Romney was successfully criticized during his presidential campaign for being part of the elite wealthy but in reality, he is on the lower side of scale. George Soros, the Koch Brothers, and other politically active billionaires are wielding much more monetary influence on the american political scene. The type of influence that seems to be indicated in “The Lessons From History.” The United States Supreme Court in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission opened the flood gate for the tipping point to spill over when it found campaign reform law to be unconstitutional.
The Durant’s used the history of Rome and Greece extensively in building their conclusions. In many aspects our current situation in the United States is different. These differences encompass a wide spectrum from communications (The Internet) to the industrial and urban nature of our society. Nevertheless, many of the arguments which they made seem to hold true. Of prime interest is the apparent belief that our current Democratic Party and particularly President Obama places in the idea. Whether that interest is born of true concern for the welfare of the country or a way to buy votes I can’t say. What I do believe however, is that they are actively pursuing a path of income redistribution.
This path of redistribution is playing out in The Affordable Care Act, in efforts to raise the minimum wage, in President Obama’s proposed tax changes or “pay their fair share.”
So what we see is an effort to raise wages and benefits for those that are at the bottom of the income earning scale. Some of the redistribution comes from the wealthy but a lot comes at the expense of the middle class. Similar programs have been implement over the past 50 years. Specifically, Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. However, the gap between the rich and the poor has not improved. It hasn’t worked, at least not as well as we would have liked. So, what is missing?
This Nations most successful governor once said: “…if you divided the substance of the rich among the poor, and make all what they call equal …the question would arise with me at once, how long would they remain equal? Make the rich and the poor of this community, or of any other, equal by the distribution of their earthly substance, and how long would it be before a certain portion of them would be calling upon the other portion, for something with which to sustain themselves? … in a very few years, at the most, …wealth would thus be passed or redistributed again among those who know how to accumulate wealth and to preserve it when accumulated.”
Therein lies the rub. Taking from the rich and giving to the poor does not solve the problem. We have now come full circle. The Durant’s historical issue with democracy is: “since people are not really equal, those with better talents rise to the top.” Some people are better at accumulating wealth and retaining it than others. In redistributing wealth, the problem has not been solved or corrected, only delayed. By simply giving support to those who need it or by simply taking care of those in need, we have only temporarily avoided the problem. The wealth has been wasted. We need to do more than simply provide.
That same Governor stated: “… give them (the poor) the same opportunity that you possess to become independent and self-sustaining, and endow them with all the wisdom and knowledge that they are capable of receiving, and let them increase with you and unitedly grow and become strong.” In other words, “the redistribution of wealth” needs to be focused around the creation of jobs, opportunity, training, education and responsibility. Not simply giving money or wealth away without also providing a means whereby that wealth will be used to raise or enable others to become the best that they can be.
Health care is a life staple which needs to be improved and more obtainable for all but not in a way that makes the transition from poverty to middle class more difficult to obtain or that limits economic growth. The minimum wage could be raised but not so fast that work opportunities become fewer and the middle class becomes more elusive for those trying to break out of poverty. Taxes on the wealthy should be used to lift the poor, but not without also providing opportunity. Therein lies the task before our elected leaders.
Samuel Waen Jensen