Progressive Writers Bloc

The Non-Selfish, Non-Greedy Rich

By Bill Becker

In my earlier essay, The Selfish, Greedy Rich, I discussed the Roosevelt-haters and their modern successors—the sector of America’s super-rich who hate government, hate taxes, and, in truth, hate those of us who want government to help us provide nutritious school lunches for poor children. Their heroes are not Washington or Jefferson, but the robber barons of the mid- and late-19th century. For 70 years, they dreamed and schemed to return America to the era of laissez-faire capitalism. There were setbacks—the democratizing effects of WWII and the GI Bill; the anti-materialist, anti-imperialist ‘60s, in which millions of young Americans threatened to opt out of the consumer culture the Cold War produced—but with Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater’s entry into the 1964 Presidential race, the camel’s nose was in the tent, as our Arab brethren like to say. Later, with Ronald Reagan’s election to the presidency in 1980, more of the camel entered the tent. Today, with George W. Bush as president, we can say that virtually the entire camel is in the tent—the selfish, greedy rich now effectively control every important aspect of American life. All that is remains to them is to dismantle the few remaining obstacles to the plutocracy they have so long dreamed of.

In The Selfish, Greedy Rich I also alluded to "those who despite their riches have retained their sense of connection with the rest of humanity." These Americans I call the non-selfish, non-greedy rich. I do not mean here that they are indifferent to making money—they are rich, after all—but rather that they do not hate government, nor do they hate paying taxes. They agree with Oliver Wendell Holmes, former Justice of the United States Supreme Court: "taxes are what we pay for a civilized society." Indeed, over and above their substantial charitable work, they are willing to pay their fair share of taxes just so that government can provide nutritious school lunches for poor children. But, the non-selfish, non-greedy rich are to be commended for more than their generosity of spirit. They are honest.

The non-selfish, non-greedy rich know, and have the decency to admit, that they didn’t become rich all by themselves. They know, and have the decency to admit, that being born on third base is not the same as hitting a triple:

"[i]n addition to their own moxie, creativity and hard work, ... other factors such as societal investment, privilege, historical timing and luck had a role in their success."

They even wrote a report about it: I Didn't Do It Alone: Society's Contribution to Individual Wealth and Success.

"I personally think that society is responsible for a very significant percentage of what I've earned." — Warren Buffet, the world’s second wealthiest man.

Martin Rothenberg, founder of Syracuse Language Systems and Glottal Enterprises, reminds us of the benefits available to most of us just because of the functioning social and political economy provided by our government:

"My wealth is not only a product of my own hard work. It also resulted from a strong economy and lots of public investment, both in others and in me. I received a good public school education and used free libraries and museums paid for by others. I went to college under the GI Bill. I went to graduate school to study computers and language on a complete government scholarship... While teaching at Syracuse University for 25 years, my research was supported by numerous government grants... My university research provided the basis for Syracuse Language Systems..."

Buffett and Rothenberg are giving credit to what Working Assets founder Paul Barnes calls "the commons." The commons includes "the sky, the fisheries, water and land, as well as social assets like our property law system, the broadcast spectrum, the Internet, accumulated scientific knowledge," and, let me emphasize, a well-regulated stock market. In radical contrast to those who want every square inch of the earth’s surface in private hands, and for whom nothing that cannot be valued in dollars is of the slightest value

"for Barnes, the challenge of capitalism in the 21st century is to recognize the value that is created by the commons and to protect it, give it standing and clout." According to Barnes, "we have an obligation to pass [the commons] onto our heirs, undiminished and more or less equally."

The generous spirit shown by the non-selfish, non-greedy rich, who feel a moral obligation to give back to the commons that made their wealth possible, challenges us all. This does not mean that they are naive, starry-eyed idealists who believe that merely throwing tax money at social problems will make them go away. They do know, however, that if the great American experiment in freedom is to be perfected, we will need all the patience, tolerance, compassion, and sense of humor that we can muster. Government is generally a messy business, but throwing the baby out with the bath water, as the selfish, greedy rich advocate, will lead directly to the destruction of the commons. Then will follow a state that no sane American could desire—the "war of all against all" so vividly described by the British philosopher Thomas Hobbes. The generals directing that war, protected far behind the front lines by the state security forces, will be the selfish, greedy rich.

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