Liberty vs. Government-assisted Avarice

free to seek to get rich vs. getting rich as the point of society

Photo by Jingming Pan on Unsplash

Based on my readings in history, it is clear to me that from the beginning of the U.S. as a nation ‘getting rich’ has been a driving force in our society. Early on, not only de Toqueville, but other travelers to this land were astonished by the level of outright avarice.

From the beginning, some people sought governmental assistance for avarice. Speculators in land and the emergent burst in technology (as well as less scrupulous ventures) sought easy money with low rates of interest. They vociferously decried any attempt by government to ‘interfere’ in money markets, even for the sake of preventing the most fraudulent schemes.

At the time most money was in the form of ‘bank notes’ — literally, money that an individual bank took upon itself to have printed. Those notes were supposedly exchangeable for specie (money in the form of silver and gold coins) in the amount of the note, but back then banks came and went like independent restaurants do today. Sometimes the printing of notes was itself an outright fraud, and even the most legitimate banks could and did avoid as much as possible redeeming notes for specie. Every so often they would simply ‘suspend’ — just stop exchanging their notes for specie, at least for a time (if the bank didn’t fail in the meantime).

Assistance from government came in the form of foregoing legitimate actions in the governance of society to provide the nation with ‘sound money’ (the term used by those who wanted money regulated — by a central bank created by the central government or, failing that, the central government itself). It also came, however, in the form of proactive undertakings on the part of government, especially in ‘public improvements’, such as the construction of roads and canals. Such projects, however good for society, fit nicely with the wants of speculators. So the ultimate goal of the ‘get rich fast’ caucus was a loose monetary function combined with lots of public investments, both of which depended on government — inaction or action — for their existence.

From the very beginning, then, in the U.S. people who have wanted to get rich have sought to bend the governance of society, which is effected through the offices of government, to their purposes. That only intensified as the intensification of the industrial revolution proceeded. It has not diminished with the financialization of the economy since the 1970’s: in the 1960’s manufacturing was the largest sector of the economy; today the largest single sector of the economy is ‘financial services’. At every turn, people who have wanted to get rich and use their riches to get richer yet have bent government, via action and inaction, to their desires.

As a result, getting rich is the raison d’etre of our society, the reason for its existence. We live in a society in which getting rich has become the only goal society is built to legitimate. Anyone who insists on any other goal for oneself or society as a whole is thereby de-legitimated from the git-go. People are ‘free’ to choose other goals for themselves or society, but they must be prepared to accept that they are seeking goals that are at odds with the society they live in and to suffer whatever consequences such an approach to life might entail.

All the while, those who view getting rich as the point of life have insisted that they are the true lovers of liberty. That is not the case. They captured government early in the history of this nation and made it a slave serving their wants and desires above any other goal from that time to the present.

It is true that the Great Depression generated a period of about thirty or so years in which people with another view of society had the upper hand politically. During that time laws were passed to give unions a real chance to exist along with various initiatives to bolster the economic well-being of the middle class and even some attempts to ameliorate poverty. That brief day in the sun for a society dedicated to something other than individuals getting rich ended with the end of the 1960’s. We have been reverting to public business-as-usual in this country, with government serving the interests of the rich, ever since.

It is getting-rich-as-the-point-of-existence that has driven monetary policy in this nation for most of its existence — and never more so than since the end of the 1970’s. That has taken place under the guise of a legal mandate for the central bank (the Federal Reserve System, ‘the Fed’), which partners with the central government to form an economic Leviathan, to use that combined economic power to maximize total output (the Gross Domestic Product).

That is sold to the public as ‘maximizing employment’, but that is not the primary intention of maximizing total output. To maximize the GDP is to maximize income. (It is not for nothing that the records kept by the central government concerning the performance of the economy are called the ‘national income accounts’.) That is why the central bank/central government Leviathan seeks to maximize output. In conjunction with the financialization of the economy, tax policies have been enacted to ensure that almost all of the increase in total personal income since 1980 has gone to the rich.

I do accept that in a just society seeking to get rich is a legitimate thing to do. I do believe, however, that it is a sin to stay rich when/where poverty exists (though that is only a personal belief of mine that I honestly don’t expect other people to accept).

I reject absolutely that getting rich is the point of life. I reject all the more using government to bend all of society to that purpose.

Even for a nation as a whole, maximizing wealth is not the highest possible goal: enough, yes; more than that, no. Even if it is the case that excessive wealth on the part of some is necessary for there to be enough wealth for all, that does not sanctify making the ongoing, uninterrupted, unabridged accumulation of ever more wealth on the part of particular individuals the ultimate goal of society.

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Stephen Yearwood

unaffiliated, non-ideological, unpaid: M.A. in political economy (where philosophy and economics intersect) with a focus in money/distributive justice