Hello, and welcome back to Start the Evolution. In the first post, I laid the groundwork for what this site will be, and ideally what it might accomplish.
Now and going forward, in each post I am going to delve into one of a wide variety of issues, express my personal take on the subject, and then open the matter up for discussion in the Dialogue forum. I in no way profess to be an expert on any of these topics, and hope that the delivery of my personal sentiments will not be mistaken for arrogant proclamations of fact. If it comes across that way, it’s only because I would prefer not to start every sentence with the words, “in my opinion” or “in my experience.” For the sake of simplicity, it can be assumed.
I do want to mention that it is not an easy thing for me to expound on topics about which I have a relatively shaky grasp. If we’re talking about my insecurities, “the fear of sounding stupid” is right at the top of the long list. It’s the reason I’ve always been terrified of doing improv, and the reason I would sooner come down with a case of diphtheria than appear on a nationally televised game show. I will reiterate that a major reason I have started this site is because I want to fill in the gaps of my own understanding. I am looking forward to being corrected.
Good. That’s out of the way. I’m sure it won’t be the last time I apologize for myself, but I’ll try not to make a habit of it.
I plan to touch on a vast array of issues, but because we are currently being assailed with coverage of the upcoming election, and will continue to be for many, many, many months to come, an unfair majority of my early posts will likely focus on the presidential race. Once I feel that I have sufficiently beaten that subject to death, I’ll move on to such matters as education, religion and human rights, which typically interest me to a greater degree.
I’m not going to jump directly into discussing the pros and cons of specific candidates, although this episode’s focus should leave little doubt as to where my vote will be cast in the upcoming California primary, even if his chances of actually winning are by now a mathematical improbability. Instead, I’m going to start a bit broader.
It might be fair to say that the fundamental issue that separates the right from the left is the question of what economic and social systems we should be using in this country. Very quickly, let’s touch on each of the major systems, so that we’re at least familiar with the terminology. And again, here my knowledge of the subject is woefully inadequate, so I’m going to rely on the definitions provided by Merriam-Webster, rather than attempt to define them myself.
There I go, apologizing again. Ah, well. It was nice while it lasted.
First up – communism: a way of organizing a society in which the government owns the things that are used to make and transport products, and in which there is no privately owned property.
Socialism: a way of organizing a society in which major industries are owned and controlled by the government rather than by individual people and companies.
Capitalism: a way of organizing an economy so that the things that are used to make and transport products are owned by individual people and companies rather than by the government.
And fascism: a way of organizing a society in which a government ruled by a dictator controls the lives of the people and in which people are not allowed to disagree with the government.
I know these definitions are on the simplistic side, but they’re enough to give rough impressions, at least. And there may be others, but at least according to my own understanding, these are the biggies.
I think, or at least I hope, that most of us can agree that neither communism nor fascism is the answer. During the course of human evolution, we’ve had occasion to test out all sorts of methods, always with the aim of making a nation or group of people thrive and excel, and it’s been a mixed bag of results. A system in which everything is commonly owned, where there is incentive to work but no incentive to create, innovate or overachieve, will never result in the types of progress that are vital to our survival. And clearly, handing over autonomous sovereign power to one human being, without a whiff of democratic process, is a recipe for disaster. And it is a recipe that has been executed time and time again, reliably spoiling the broth, even with just a single cook in the kitchen.
And so most of us, in this country at least, believe that a socialist system, a capitalist system, or some balance of the two, is where it’s at.
In fact, the vast majority of us do believe in a balance of the two. Even those who are disgusted by the corruption and power of big business feel that we should be able to pave our own way in the world. That there should be the opportunity to start a small business and watch it grow, or that there should be some semblance of a ladder of success that each of us may climb. And I’ve never met someone touting the virtues of capitalism who isn’t making use of insurance, or public libraries, parks, or schools, or planning to cash in on their Social Security and Medicare, and who truly believes that all of those programs and services should be eradicated.
When you stop to think about it, it’s really just an argument over where we feel the line should be drawn. It’s not a decision to join either the Light or the Dark Side. We’re not being asked to align with either Gandalf or Sauron. Or…[insert third nerd reference here]. Like most things we convince our own brains to believe are black and white…it isn’t. We mainly agree that a purely socialist system wouldn’t work, as private industry has brought about most of the greatest technological advances of our age. And we mainly agree that a purely capitalistic system wouldn’t work, as we must rely on cooperation to have roads and bridges that allow us to travel to and from those jobs we value so highly, and that unchecked power will, almost without fail, lead to corruption and abuse. There must be a balance of these two ideas…and it’s there where our discord and disunity lies.
So why, when a phrase like “democratic socialism” is brought to the forefront of our consciousness, do so many recoil in horror, as if a dirty word has been spoken? Sadly, Merriam-Webster has no definition to offer for this one, so I’ll take a stab at it.
The term, which admittedly I had never heard uttered until Bernie Sanders came along and cemented it in our collective vocabulary, seems to be nothing more than an admission that the extremes of both socialism and capitalism have their failings, and that the world does not operate simply enough to accommodate either of them in unrevised form. It is the suggestion that there is middle ground – one which allows for enterprise, but acknowledges the dangers inherent in making that enterprise truly free, and strives to put preventative measures in place to preclude corruption – and one which encourages the notions of equality and community, but not at the sake of competition or prosperity. It is, in my mind, the ultimate compromise. And not a compromise in the usual sense of the word, where neither of two sides is successful in getting what they want, but in the sense that only a perfectly struck balance can result in true equity and success.
When I was in high school, I was – like many others my age – obsessed with Ayn Rand. I read The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged multiple times each. And those are some pretty weighty tomes. I zipped through Anthem and We the Living, marveled at the revelatory conceits revealed in The Virtue of Selfishness. For the record, through it all I remained a champion of selflessness, and cared deeply about all of my fellow human beings, an admission that probably would have mortified Ms. Rand. I simply disregarded the aspects of objectivism I didn’t happen to agree with. But the bits I did agree with…inspired me profoundly.
There is a reason that many young readers are so drawn to her work and philosophy. What is not attractive about being told that there is nothing nobler than to create, or to build – to forge something that is wonderfully and uniquely you, and which strives for perfection and will accept little less? What is not enticing about being told that dedication to one’s vision surpasses all other considerations? Especially when you are a bright, creative and passionate young person, who sees himself accomplishing all sorts of impressive feats in the years to come?
Today, I can still appreciate the things Rand said about maintaining an unwavering integrity, although I might apply it differently than the way in which she intended. I do still want to create. I want to be the very best at whatever I choose to spend my time doing. I want to be respected and admired for my work. None of that has changed since I opened the first page of The Fountainhead.
But here is where, in my view, Rand went terribly, terribly wrong. She argues—not surprisingly, considering the aforementioned title of one of her books—that selfishness is a virtue. Moreover, its opposite, selflessness, is a sin. Charity? Despicable. Self-sacrifice of any kind was, by definition according to Rand, immoral and wrong.
Here is where I think she made her fatal error. She assumed that selfishness and selflessness were opposites. Instead, selflessness is a subset of selfishness.
I believe that every human act is selfish. Everything we do is with the intent to continue our survival, or to help us thrive, or to make our time on this planet more fulfilling or enjoyable. When we give a few dollars to someone on the street, we are helping that person, but we are also boosting our own sense of generosity and worth. When we help someone out of a jam, we are rewarded not only by the knowledge that we have done a good deed, but also often by words of kindness and gratitude, which warm our hearts and make us feel like better people. From a sociological and biological vantage point, aiding those around us serves to prolong the survival of our species as a whole, as well as improves our standing in and value to the community, should we ever need that community to help us in return.
But the fact that selfless acts simultaneously benefit us does not minimize their importance or make them less kind or humane. We are thoughtful and emotional creatures, and our inclination for philanthropy does us a credit.
Not sure you agree that every act is a selfish one? Ask yourself this: if you were to witness a homeless man slap a woman across the face, then cross to your side of the street, look pleadingly into your eyes and ask for a dollar, would you give it to him? He could obviously use it. Giving him that dollar, as perhaps you often do to complete strangers in need, would be of far greater use to him than to yourself, and might even keep him alive or hopeful an extra couple of hours. There is no doubt in your mind on this point. And yet…you wouldn’t do it. Selfishly—with good cause, mind you, but selfishly nonetheless—you refrain from giving this man your dollar, because his actions do not align with your—not to mention most of the rest of the world’s—values. Likewise, a homophobe will generally not perform a charitable act for someone who has publicly demonstrated their homosexuality, nor is a dog person as likely to help out a cat owner as they are a fellow dog owner. These might sound like silly examples, but they’re true. We selflessly help those we selfishly pity, relate to or even admire.
Most of those who sing the praises of capitalism and wholly condemn socialism, whether or not they are familiar with Rand’s philosophy, are missing the boat here. The pursuit of achievement, the quest for perfection—these are noble undertakings. We should be challenging ourselves; we should be remaining true to our purpose; we should be endeavoring to scale the heights of success in whatever field we choose. But to pretend that such pursuits are the pinnacle of human ambition, without acknowledging the existence of our innate benevolence, is to myopically place one’s focus on only half the journey.
If attaining money and power were really the ultimate goal, than what of the playboy who is born into extraordinary wealth? Where is the value in his life? He already has everything he needs. And what of someone born dirt poor, with disabilities that prevent him from ever having adequate opportunity to do more than eke out a meager living? Is he a predestined failure?
Most of us find ourselves somewhere in the middle, and I know that most of those who will hear these words do not need to be convinced that our humanity overrides the pursuit of monetary accumulation. But there are plenty of people out there, hopefully some who will respond to this post, who do believe that a person’s freedom to acquire wealth, and to hold onto all the wealth he has earned, cannot rightly be infringed upon by anyone for any purpose. There can be a greater good, as long as that greater good doesn’t attempt to reach inside their back pocket.
My read is that most full-grown adults who think this way do so for one of two reasons. One—they were raised by parents or in a community that indoctrinated them to believe that the value of accumulation is a preeminent one, and they have never fairly questioned the validity of that assessment. And two—that they experienced that same thrill that I did when reading The Fountainhead back in high school, that somewhere along the line they decided that they liked accepting the notion that their thoughts, beliefs, achievements, and opinions were superior to all others, and were unanswerable to any opposition.
Communism has been largely dismissed as a viable system, because it has been tried, and has been proven not to succeed. I see no reason that pure capitalism should not now be dismissed for the very same reason.
We have been at this thing for a long time in this country. If capitalism were really the answer, then trickle-down economics would be more than just a crackpot theory that has clearly failed to hold water. There would not be sixty-two people with as much wealth as half the rest of the world population. There would not be widespread epidemics of poverty, malnutrition and suffering. Those at the bottom would have as much opportunity as anyone to better their educational and financial situations, rather than being mostly relegated to choking down the leftovers of the upper crust.
The concept is wonderful in theory. Those who work the hardest, and shine the brightest, make the most money and live most comfortably. But it isn’t hard to see—as long as you’re willing to really look—that it doesn’t shake out that way. Some of the hardest working people put in eighteen hour days at three jobs, grinding tirelessly just to feed their families and stay afloat. Some of the brightest among us toil away in classrooms, honorably passing along their knowledge to the next generation while being compensated poorly for their efforts. And on the flip side of that coin, while there certainly are many intelligent and hard-working people finding financial success, there are also the sycophants, the opportunists, the cheaters, the abusers of nepotism—those who have found the loopholes, have wrapped their index fingers tightly about them and pulled.
Somewhere, a scientist is slaving away tirelessly in an effort to find the cure for cancer, while someone else is shaking her hips on stage and singing—with the aid of auto-tune—and making more for a single appearance than the scientist can hope to earn in a year. Somewhere a social worker is talking someone out of taking their own life, while someone else is throwing balls through a circle and banking the equivalent of that social worker’s salary with every shot.
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have singers, or basketball players, or even agents, managers and owners, and I’m not suggesting they shouldn’t make good money, considering that what they provide is popular enough to warrant the spending of outlandish ticket prices on the part of the consumer. Good on them for providing a desired service, and for finding a way to maximize their profit. But at some point, we have to start looking at the insane discrepancies between what certain people earn, and not just numbly chalk it up as a product of free industry. At some point, we have to question whether there’s something wrong with a system that results in this brand of inequity.
We need to keep in mind what it is about capitalism that is attractive to us, and keeps our motor running. It is the promise that a better future awaits us, and can be obtained by working hard and improving in whatever field we have chosen. No one is realistically arguing that that change. Even if taxes were to be raised quite a bit on the exceptionally rich, that motivation would still be there. Someone who makes ten million dollars and pays back half that in taxes still has more incentive to reach those heights than someone making only $50,000 and paying a third. As long as there is a significant scale of monetary achievement in place, and as long as the money collected by our government goes to programs that benefit all of us, no one should be crying foul. It is simply the necessary, manual correcting of a system that, left to its own devices, has clearly failed.
Now, more than ever, we can see what capitalism can become when too many among us refuse to accept its shortcomings and dangers. Lobbyists and special interests put pressure on our legislators, who then bend to their will. They have not only interfered, but robbed us of our democracy. We are now living in a plutocracy, where we are ruled by the dollar, and by whoever happens to wield the greatest number of them. We are left with an obstructionist Congress who can accomplish virtually nothing, forcing our president to use executive action if anything at all is to be achieved, whether or not those actions are approved by the masses, or their supposed representatives.
So when I hear someone like Bernie Sanders clamoring to drastically alter the status quo, I naturally get excited. I know it’s easier said than done. For now, I’m not arguing the merit, trustworthiness or electability of any particular candidate over another. I’m only referencing the idea. And I think it’s one that right-leaning capitalism enthusiasts should take the time to consider.
And look—I understand their concerns, and many of them mirror my own. I don’t want our government to have undue power. I don’t want them overreaching, or interfering excessively with my life, or invading my privacy unnecessarily. There should always be stringent restrictions and regulations placed on our government, as well as on individuals, as well as on corporations. Any entity that, when infused with great power and wealth has the potential to grow corrupt, and to quash those values and precepts that we as Americans hold dear, needs to be kept in check.
But it’s time to stop looking at the world in clear-cut terms of extremes. We need to let go of the words “no,” “none” and “never.” Life is about balance. If we are going to survive, and avoid the pitfalls of pretty much every major power that has ever come before us, we’re going to need to grow up and quit holding so stubbornly to our views, treating opinion as undeniable fact. And I’m not just picking on conservatives here—I’m talking about everyone. Idealism is easy. Picturing a dream world inside our heads and then holding the real world to those standards isn’t practical. In reality, until and unless all of us agree on a particular issue, it’s going to take compromise, and that compromise cannot be achieved until we get over ourselves, and admit that, just like everyone else on this planet, we’re still searching.
As I indicated in the first episode, I’m not asking anyone to pull a complete U-ey overnight. But entertain the idea. Consider the proposition that capitalism and socialism have a symbiotic relationship, that both have value and neither should gain too much of an upper hand.
It is simple and gratifying to point out the negatives of whatever it is you don’t like. It’s much harder to seek the good in it. So, if I may give my listeners some homework…I challenge you to do just that. If you’re a liberal, spend a few minutes brainstorming all the good that has come out of our highly capitalistic system, and imagine the ways in which we’d be worse off if it hadn’t been an integral part of our formation and subsequent progress. If you’re a conservative—even if just a fiscal one—think about what this nation would be like with no social programs. What condition we’d be in if the government had literally no power, and it was every man for himself.
If we can somehow agree that the truth lies somewhere in the middle, and will require some degree of give-and-take, maybe we can finally stop fighting long enough to get something done.