Is Life A Zero Sum Game?

| No TrackBacks
Horatio Alger, Jr.

                           Horatio Alger, Jr.

A few days ago "Anonymous" posted the comment below on my website:

You seem to forget that what made America great was the individualism and willingness to take risks for great rewards. The malaise in our country comes from the loss of those things as we lose more of our freedom and chance that we will be rewarded for risk-taking. There are too many who are willing take from those who do produce the wealth in our country. When those who depend on the politicians for sustenance outnumber the wealth-producers we are doomed.

My reply:

Dear Anonymous,
    My critique is not with individualism per se but with the kind of anti-social individualism that I would argue is John Locke's legacy to this country. Far too often we celebrate that legacy - that has been institutionalized in the unresponsive eighteenth century machinery of our government and which is constantly reinforced by the popular culture.

    Contrary to the conventional wisdom, most wealthy Americans today inherited their wealth - or at least a substantial part of it. Thus, because inheritance gave them a "leg up" over everyone else, they are not "risk-takers." Aside from that troublesome fact, don't you find it obscene that, according to Forbes magazine, as of 2010, the combined wealth of the 400 wealthiest Americans was $1.37 trillion, up from $1.27 trillion in 2009. These four hundred have a combined wealth greater than 50% of the rest of the American population? The kind  of economic inequality that exits in U.S. today breeds slavery, not freedom.

        We need to get beyond the myth of Horatio Alger and realize that pervasive poverty and unemployment engender despair, despair engenders resentment, resentment ignites rebellion. All of the gated communities of the wealthy in America cannot - absent serious structural economic reform that includes a commitment to ameliorate the suffering of our fellow citizens and a serious investment in public goods - and will not protect them from the whirlwind that they will reap.

    Each of us needs to ask ourselves some fairly basic questions. Isn't the pursuit of self-interest by individuals, each of whom is in competition with all others, self-defeating? Doesn't unfettered competition often have deleterious effects upon the public interest? Isn't it an economic fact of life that, in a market economy, individual actors--whether human beings, corporations or governmental units--seek to maximize their advantages and to minimize their risks in a capitalist economy?

    Isn't it also true that, when each actor "hunkers down" during an economic crisis, the self-replicating behavior--as reflected in job losses, withdrawal of investment and the collapse of consumer demand--ripples through the economy to the detriment of all but the few most fortunate? Doesn't that behavior then exacerbate the very problems that individual actors seek to inoculate themselves against, the public consequences of their behavior be damned?

        Thomas Hill Green and Miguel DeUnamuno, among others, remind us that "the self is social self." Selves do not live in social isolation; each of us is part of something bigger - a community. As members of a community, we owe one another fair treatment and help when in need. The social equation is not, as you suggest taking from one another but, rather, doing for one another. As the poet, John Donne reminds us, "No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as a manor of thy friends or of thine own were; any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee. "

Enhanced by Zemanta

No TrackBacks

TrackBack URL: