SHOULD CAPITALISM HAVE A SOCIAL CONSCIENCE?

Yesterday I saw something that I'd never seen before. I can't say it's rare, though it was new to me. Perhaps my life is unusually sheltered in the modest beach suburb in Florida where I reside. I'd certainly be the last to know, though I realize it is not a big-city ghetto in which large numbers of impoverished people live densely cheek by jowl, as the old saying goes. What I saw wasn't dangerous or life-threatening, but it was threatening to my mind's sense of order.

To bid bon voyage to a very good doctor friend of mine who is about to fulfill a lifetime dream of seeing the Iditerod dogsled race in Nome, Alaska, I drove south on I-95 to highway 60, the Vero Beach exit. When I left the freeway, I slowed down for the stop sign where I'd make a left turn on 60, a four lane road. Several vehicles were in front of me and my sunglasses dimmed the vision ahead, but I saw a figure approach a tractor trailer that was stopped at the sign. The figure, which appeared to be that of a woman, reached up and received something from the driver's window, then returned to the grassy area surrounding the stop sign and sat down. When the two other vehicles ahead of me cleared, I drove to the stop and looked to my left. A woman in her thirties was sitting on the grass. She held a hand-lettered card on her lap that read HUNGER. I reached in my pocket, pulled out a couple of dollar bills, rolled down my window, and she came over and took them with a word of thanks and a smile.

While driving the additional six miles to my friend's house, I mulled over what I'd just seen. Yes, I know America's unemployment rate is as low as it's been for nearly a decade. Yes, I know the New Testament reveals Jesus said, "There will be poor always, pathetically struggling." Yes, I know there are private and governmental social organizations whose purpose is to provide food for the poor. Yes, I know there are minimum pay jobs available for those willing to work. None of that helped the disarrangement of my mind's sense of order.

Man is by nature a social animal. Ignoring the loaded and difficult question of religion, homo sapien can be categorized today basically as a highly evolved primate with an unusually well-developed brain. Man has always lived in social groups, and one does not wander far from the truth to call him a herd creature. Among all mammals, man's young take the longest to mature to adulthood. After a decade of almost total care, our young still require another five to eight years before they can truly be considered young adults. Centuries before our society became so complex and removed from the world's natural surroundings, the basic social group assisted the family in educating and protecting its young. Much of that is still true today, though our mobile society often isolates the young from all but their biological parents. The larger family comprised of aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents may reside hundreds or thousands of miles away. There is evidence our young miss the ministrations of adults other than their parents, and that adults miss the opportunity to interact with and help educate children not their own. We are social creatures, and it goes against the grain to live alone, think narrowly only of ourselves, and ignore our fellows.

It seems to me we do injustice to humanity when mankind fails to pay heed and take care of its larger family. John Donne asked for whom the bell tolls, and answered that inasmuch as it tolls for any of humanity, it tolls for thee. His point was that we are all interrelated, and from the larger view, he is right. Now what, if anything, does that have to do with economics and our present situation in America?

Capitalism works because self interest is a better long-term motivator of human beings than any other economic concept that has been devised, including supposedly altruistic and compassionate schemes like socialism and communism. But where do we draw the line from the nakedly capitalistic game of monopoly we played as children, in which the purpose of the game is to pauperize and bankrupt all the other players. Can man extend that to real life? We are already far along the path of dismantling the welfare net that was erected by well-meaning liberals in the decades after the sixties. How far do we intend to go?

In the past two decades, the upper 20% of America's wage earners has appreciably widened the gap between themselves and the 80% below. Now, an unfeeling, well-paid and hard working professional can ask with some justification, "Isn't this correct?" My answer is that of a cabbie who had just driven a little old lady fifteen miles through rush hour traffic in Manhattan and been paid the amount on the meter. To her inquiry if that was correct, he replied, "It's correct lady, but it ain't right!"

There is something in me that says widening the already large disparity in pay among Americans is not right. I would not want to defend the feeling in a court of law, but essentially my rationale is we are all human and there isn't a great difference in the degree of our humanity. We are born, we live, and we die, and I cannot justify the belief that one human is vastly more deserving than another. Certainly, our species, which dominates the planet, is sufficiently well-off to feed and take care of its own.

The single incident of a young woman who may have temporarily been down on her luck, can easily be dismissed. For all I know, she may have lived easily and well most of her life. But it serves as the trigger to a series of larger questions. How rich is rich enough? How far should our workable scheme of capitalism obligate itself to pay the freight for those unable or perhaps unwilling to work for themselves? Just how much homelessness, poverty, substance abuse, hunger and wasting of minds can we justify in the name of personal choice and freedom. How long should we continue to allow the further polarization of assets and wealth among our citizens?

America's early Pilgrims had a stringent rule about the matter: "He who does not work does not eat." And few of us have read the story of the little red hen without agreeing that those who do not contribute to the work should not share in its benefits. But what we have here seems to me to differ from either of those stories, both of which dealt with bare survival from meager surroundings. We have today an enormously rich pie, not the crumbs of marginal existence. The task, from an ethical perspective, is that of finding a means to equitably divide the pie. I am not contending it should be cut into equal shares, but there must be the means to ensure everyone who works, and those who cannot, has the opportunity to receive a slice on which he, she, and any children can live. Minimally, It should take the form of a living wage, without indulgence or luxury. No matter that Americans are conditioned to believe their happiness largely depends on those two imposters. The wise among us know better.

But seeing a human being sitting along a stop sign at a highway holding a sign reading HUNGER can't in any way be transposed or twisted into terms of indulgence and luxury. It is too reminiscent of the quiet tragedy displayed in Otis Redding's classic rock ballad, "Sittin' on the dock of the bay, wastin' time." As in the TV game, Jeopardy, If we don't have the answer, we are at least staring directly at the question.


Sam Orr sorr@metrolink.net
World Traveler
and Philanthrope
(Location Unknown)