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 firstname.lastname@example.org