Extremes of wealth and poverty have often led to revolution. Our own founding revolution was but one example in the historical continuum.
Oxfam has declared without challenge that 85 people own half the world’s wealth. Here at home, the top 10% own 75% of all domestic wealth. But even as concentrations of the world’s wealth are at an historic high this does not necessarily mean revolution is inevitable. Nor does rebalancing wealth solve poverty, because wealth isn’t exactly a zero-sum game.
To understand real options, we must review and understand our political belief systems. Most conservatives and libertarians are laissez-faire capitalists. They believe that great wealth at the top, unconstrained by taxation and regulation, inevitably “trickles down” and nourishes the under-classes. For them government is the problem, not the solution.
Liberals tend to believe in the beneficial power of good government to balance the excesses of wealth, power, and business interests against the interests of its citizens through regulation and taxation. They’ll insist that the corrupting influence of wealth on government decision making is the problem.
We’ve lived through two experiments: the post-War period of Eisenhower and Kennedy and the most recent period beginning with Reagan. The first was a period of middle class growth, high taxation and significant regulation. The second, over the last 30 years, has seen several deep recessions, a financial collapse, rising unemployment, shrinkage of the middle class and more working poor. Both political parties took turns presiding during both eras.
Since greed is a part of the human condition both conservative and liberal administrations have long been subject to corruption – congressmen taking bribes to deregulate industry or gangsters running a union – greed knows no favorites. Splashy scandals like Virginia’s ex-Governor allegedly accepting illegal gifts, or the lane closings on the George Washington Bridge no longer shock. But many routine executive, legislative and judicial transactions occur beneath journalism’s shrinking surveillance and many Americans have lost faith and interest in their government. This gradual unraveling of ethical integrity and citizen participation signals a slow decay in a once-great nation.
Our belief in the integrity of government today is at an historic low. According to reliable studies, 74% of American’s now believe government is corrupt and 65% are dissatisfied with our current system of government. Liberals and conservatives know that government decision-making is drenched in money and undue influence. Sadly, their objections focus more on what corrupt influence bought rather than the corruption itself. But it is the corruption that threatens us as a nation.
A great nation needs law, regulation, and equitable taxation derived from consensus to maintain social and economic order and a fair playing field. These should not preclude the wealthy from participating or diminish their beneficial influence on a society or its economy but the organizing principles of government must set rational limits and define boundaries. For the wealthiest among us to decry class warfare or restyle themselves as victims rather than winners in the race to the top, surpasses farce.