Sucks To Be You

“Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Matt: 19:24)
“Don’t give me that dogoody good bullshit” Pink Floyd, “Money”.
Despite my Liberal inclinations and my Leftist fantacies, I am painfully aware of this one thing: THE UNITED STATES IS A CAPITALIST COUNTRY. No, really, I get it. It is. We love money here. And one of the great things about being here is the fact that there are opportunities to make money. Lots of money. Oprah money.
Although I took econ in high school, and I remember something about the objective in our culture is to “make money”, I don’t remember learning very much beyond that point, nor do I remember learning much about the creator of capitalism, the Scottish economist, Adam Smith.
Honestly, I didn’t read Smith until I got to college — in a philosophy class.
I also know that I am not the only American who has had this experience.
What I had learned in school is that being a capitalist means that, if I made a shitload of money and other people didn’t, that the appropriate response to their misfortune is “sucks to be you!”. I had plenty of teachers on this kind of capitalism, mind you. I learned from the media that “greed is good”, and that if I made a whole lot of money that I could get on Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous ( I guess it’s getting on something like Real Housewives now). I learned that pursuing one’s interests above all is not only the key to success, but the only truly American way to do it.
Funny how sometimes you learn that you didn’t know what you thought you knew when you actually read something.
Like the American Founders, Smith was a product of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment emphasized science and reason, which was meant to counter the prevailing belief in stuff like superstition and the diving right of kings — stuff that told people that wherever they found themselves was their lot in life, and that if you were born poor, you were consigned by God to be poor. The Enlightenment threw all those old ideas out and relpaced them with new ideas like, any one can be as rich as a king (and if you really know how to play the game, even richer). The idea was that man could improve on himself. He could be inventive and that by using the skills of an entrepreneur, he could make himself rich. This sounds ok so far. But here’s the deal…
The Enlightenment stressed reason as it’s primary motivator. That is, reason was vaulted as paramount among the virtues. So far so good. But, this thinking led to the idea that there are some people who just can’t ( for some reason or another) reason like other people. And if this is so, there must be some sort of explanation. This of course led to the idea that some people were naturally inclined to think better, and since thinking was a virtue and virtues are a sign of excellence, people who were better thinkers were not only better thinkers, but better people. This notion got a big help from Darwin’s theory of natural selection, which was, by way of the likes of folks like Herbert Spencer, turned from the natural world, to the social world. So, societies that were better thinkers were better societies. Those better societies were superior to other less-thinking societies. So, if you couldn’t think, using Darwin’s theory (as applied to people) you had inherited a set of bad genes. Not just you, mind you, but your entire culture had done so. And people who are stupid don’t succeed, and if you don’t succeed, you can’t get rich. So, if you’re poor, your biology made you poor. You’re not “fit” as Spencer would say.
This ethic was best expressed by Dicken’s Ebeneezer Scrooge. When Scrooge is asked if he will give to charity, he says he is not in the business of making idle people merry and that the poor will have to do with what they have . When Scrooge is told that thre poor will die if they do not get help, he says (rather famously) that they had better get to it and “decrease the surplus population”. Scrooge is merely repeating the capitalism-meets-Darwinism vibe of the latter half of the 19th century. He believes that not only are the poor to blame for their condition, but that they are taking up room and worse yet, sponging off of hard working capitalists like himself.
It’s by no mistake that we are supposed to be outraged by Scrooge’s comment. What he says isn’t only cruel, it’s not capitalist philosophy, either.
Although Smith wrote that self-interest is the prime motivator for acting in the market, he believed that men would automatically also benefit the whole. Men, Smith believed, had an intuitive sense to work toward the common good. In benefitting ourselves, we also benefit society as a whole. Smith writes that no society can flourish if a part of its people are poor and miserable. Smith writes that with the improvement of the “lower ranks” of society, the entire society is likewise improved. He says that we should not think of tis as troublesome but as an advantage. The pursuit of capital is not a free-for-all, nor should wealth be gained while the greater population suffers. Business, Smith observes, is not to go unregulated. Smith wrote that business should be conducted as if all transactions were conducted under the watch of an “impartial spectator”. Smith wrote that the spectator is, in reality, the watchful eye of the individual over his own actions (this is tied to the oft mentioned idea of the “invisible hand”. The supposedly invisible market forces that influence the behavior of capitalists and capitalism). However, Smith recognized that actual government regulation of markets is necessary to ensure that business is conducted in a manner that does not harm the greater society.
Smith knew that, given the ability to collect large sums of personal wealth, greed can impede one’s ability to regulate what one consumes. That is, Smith recognized the fact that rich people tend to be greedy and will consume more than their fair share of resources. We need regulation to ” restrain our selfish, and to indulge our benevolent affections…”. Smith wrote that we need regulation to make” nearly the same distribution of the necessities of life, which would have been made, had the earth been divided into equal portions among its inhabitants”. For Smith, unlike what we hear in the popular discourse, being a capitalist didn’t mean that we should, or even that we have the right to allow others to fall by the wayside while others clearly make and consume more than they will ever need.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not claiming that Smith was nearer to Socialism than he is to the “capitalism” that we practice here in the U.S. I don’t think he’d be a fan of any sort of socialistic distribution of wealth scheme. What I think that Smith is saying is that when we value money over other people, we are bound to get into trouble. That trouble, unfortunately, tends to affect more than just the handfull of greedy people who may have thought that they can, or should get more than everyone else.
You don’t have to watch TV for long to see that unobstructed greed isn’t just wrong in some sort of abstract, moral sense. It’s wrong in that people die and nations are brought to the brink of collapse when we think of capitalism as a “take what you can when you can” (that’s a line from The Secret Of NIHM) way of running markets. Adam Smith wanted us to have the opportunity to get rich, but he wanted us to be cautious about what we may put on the line in our pursuit as well.
I’ll end here with another Smith quote,
“People of the same trade seldom meet together even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices”.
Gee, it’s not like that’s happened recently.

You Say You Want A Revolution?

When I was a philosophy student, I participated in this shindig called “ethics bowl”. What ethics bowl isn’t as important than to say that I had a teammate who was an avowed anarchist. Really, he was. I don’t think that he was the type that wants to burn down buildings or wants chos and disorder as much as I think that he believed that people were better off governing themselves. I think that he believed, in the long run, governmental power was more pernicious than it is useful. There is a general feeling out there, not just among anarchists, but among Libertarians, Conservatives, even among Liberals and Progressives, that all government is in some way inherently bad. They are guided by the mantra “the government that governs best governs least”. As soon as governments gain power, they believe, man loses his freedom. These people are easy to spot. They’re the people who spell “government” GOVERNMENT. And a growing number of Americans see GOVERNMENT as a failure. This is not just a Tea Party sentiment. From Rush Limbaugh to the late Howard Zinn, not only are Americans (and their political spokespeople) distrustful of GOVERNMENT, they believe that government is at best incompetent and at worst dangerous. Ronald Reagan famously said, “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem”. And the GOVERNMENT has wasted no time proving Reagan’s sentiment. Intelligence failures, the Katrina debacle, runaway deficit spending, crony capitalism, the potential ELE oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and the expanding, invasive role into the lives of average Americans has a growing number of people not only agreeing with Reagan’s sentiment, but agreeing with Grover Norquist’s sentiment of wanting to shrink government to the size that it can be drowned in a bathtub. The recent primary victory of Tea Party fav, and son of Ron Paul, Rand Paul, in Kentucky is a testiment to the fact that more Americans are thinking of their government as the GOVERNMENT. Maybe the people should be alone to rule themselves. This idea is by no means a new one. As Americans, we are raised with the notion that people are or should be, for the most part, able to care for themselves. This is the way man’s nature truly is, some say. Where we go wrong, is that we institute GOVERNMENT, that, given it’s nature to take freedom away, busies itself with making otherwise independent creatures wholly subservient and dependent on it. Listen to enough talk radio, and you’ll hear how we’re supposed to be. It actually sounds a little like Rousseau’s depiction of man in the state of nature. According to Rousseau, man, in the state of nature (that is, before civilization), cared for himself. He enjoyed unlimited freedom, and success depended upon his ability or own willingness to do for himself. Man, in his natural state, did not require supervision from an institutional authority. This is about as close to a Garden of Eden as man can get. However, like the fabeled Garden, Rousseau’s nature man did not exist. The story is an allegory, an idealized notion of how man should be — how man is in his heart (as we all feel the longing for total liberty). Unfortunately, as anyone who has ever tries to hang a seiling fan alone has discovered, there are some things that individuals simply cannot do for themselves. We cannot defend our borders as single people (although there are some people who believe this is possible), we need governments to secure our borders for us. A single man cannot fight against an entire nation. Therefore, we need governments to create armies to protect and defend us. We cannot survive alone in a world, where all fight against all, where Hobbes says that life is “nasty, brutish and short”. We need protection. We would rather give up some of our freedom in exchange for safety and security. This is why man agrees to be governed. We also know that no matter how much we try to educate some, there are people who simply will not or cannot not make rational decisions. Governments take all suggestions of how to govern and mitigate as to which course of action is the best for the people to take. The Founders were well aware of this fact. Just ask yourself why the franchise was so limited at the Nation’s founding? This is why Bentham believed that government should occasionally take an activist role. If the common good can be achieved by government occasionally acting as a GOVERNMENT, then the government should do so. And our government has certainly done so; the Reconstruction amendments following the Civil War, civil rights legislation, Supreme Court decisions reversing segregation, etc. Government should always be at the ready to reverse bad decision making when the people either cannot or will not do it themselves. Of course, the government does not have unlimited power. We may have forgotten this, but our government was created to protect our rights, not to grant them. The Rights of the People are not doled out by men in Washington, but handed to us by our Creator. Our Rights are inalienable (that means we can’t even give them away voluntarily). But, like government, our rights are not absolute. We can have them taken from us by way of due process. And we know that our rights end as soon as they infringe on the rights of another person. I cannot execute a person for walking across my property, even if I post a sign that says “No Tresspassing”. My rights to have an unmolested lawn do not overide another person’s right to life. At their heart, all governments require some degree of coersion to achieve their ends (which is protecting and promoting the common good). I think that this fact is what sets some people off about GOVERNMENT — it’s the fact that they feel compelled to do anything at all. You can feel the spirit of Rousseau’s nature man in your heart, but you have to recognize that if you wnat to live in a country of 300,000,000 people, you’re going to have to do some things that you don’t wan to do, and that you are definitely not always going to get what you want. Great political thinkers: Plato, Locke, Rousseau, Marx, the American Founders, even Reagan, recognized that government is necessary. American Founder (and big GOVERNMENT enthusiast) Alexander Hamilton, said if men were angels that governments wouldn’t be necessary. Well, men aren’t. Even Reagan said that the aim wasn’t to destroy government, but to find a way to make it work. The big question is how do we go about finding a government that protects liberty, serves the common good, promotes justice, and serves the wider group? The plain truth of the matter is that democracy is messy. It’s prone to tyranny and bad governance. But, as Winston Churchill observed, as bad as democracy is, it still beats out every other bad form of government. We the people are in charge of this democracy. This is why we cannot fully blame our elected politicians nor can we fully call ourselves blameless when government goes wrong. To run a successful government, it takes lots of responsibility and alot of homework. Our task is not to drown government, but to do as Reagan said and find a way to make it work. So, my advice for anyone who complains about how much they hate GOVERNMENT and how much they’s like to see the drowning, simply think of the places where the drowning has already taken place. And then ask yourself, is there some reason why you’re not already in Somalia?

A Fate Worse Than God

At the end of the movie American Beauty, a post-murdered Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) tells us, the audience, that he is, despite all appearances, grateful for “every single moment of my stupid, little life”. Now, there’s a philosophical pinata in this movie, and it’s been written about and commented on by professional and layman philosophers aplenty. A common theme that emerges among those who look at American Beauty philosophically (and I assume even those who don’t), is the question of the meaning of life. At first glance, Lester’s life seems pretty pathetic — loveless marriage, crap-ass cubicle job (from which he is fired), and a daughter who propositions the neighbor kid to off her dad, not to mention Lester’s growing obsession with the best friend of his teenage daughter. We look at Lester and see someone worthless, someone who has let life pass him by, someone who, if he disappeared tomorrow, no one would notice. Lester’s life stank of the quiet desperaton that Thoreau wrote of in Walden. However, even though we know that Lester’s life has come to nothing, at the end, he’s still grateful for every single moment of his life. So, there are no wasted moments after all. At the end, Lester found meaning in something that seemed so meaningless. But for the rest of us, in the real world, how can we tell that, in the end, we’d be so grateful like Lester? How do we determine that the lives we have are worth living? The 18th century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche was nice enough to give us a method for solving one of life’s most vexing questions: Is my life worth living? Nietzsche’s solution? Eternal return. Nietzsche’s “eternal return” goes a little something like this: a demon come to you and says “this life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it… every pain and every joy… everything immeasurably small or great in your life must return to you…” . Nietzsche says if our response is that we “throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus”, that our lives are not meaningful. that is, if, at the prospect of having to live your life over again for an eternity, you greet the news as someone would greet a death sentence, you had better rethink how you’re living your life, and fast. Because your life sucks. Most of us would say yes to the demon if we had the possibility to change things we had done in our past — to improve on ourselves, to change things for the better. Most of us wouldn’t have a problem if the demon presented us with the situation that wheatherman Phil Connors experienced in the movie Groundhog Day. Phil was stuck living the same day repeatedly, but each time he began a new day, he was able to change his actions. Eventually, Phil discovered that the point of repeating the same day over and over was so that he would change something about himself. At the outset, Phil wasn’t a very nice guy. Repeating Groundhog Day allowed Phil to see where he was going wrong. The day became a kind of cosmic mulligan. He did it ’til he got it right. Only when Phil improved himself was he allowed to move on to February 3. But with Nietzsche, there is no release. There is no moving on to the next day. And absolutely no changing things, either. What would we do if we realized that, wnlike Phil, we couldn’t change what happened? We would have to live every excruciating detail of our lives forever? I suspect that only after a few times, we would end up alot like Michael Palin in the “Deja Vu” sketch on Monty Python’s Flying Circus. It doesn’t take long before Palin’s nerevs are frazzled, knowing that the same thing will happen over and over and over again. (if you haven’t seen this sketch, watch it). The idea that is scary is that there aren’t enough good times to make the truly awful times bearale for an eternity. For every fantastic birthday or trip to Cancun, there’s that time that you were attacked by the neighbor’s dog, or the time you spent a week in jail for unpaid traffic tickets. Those times sucked. In Nietzsche’s eternal return, the demon gives us a choice. We can decide whether we want to take him up on his offer or not. But what if the afterlife (or whatever lies beyond our plane of existence) is more like what happened to Phil Conners? What if we don’t have a choice? What if when our lives end, nature or God automatically pushes the “repeat” button? What if repeating our lives was something that wasn’t meant to teach us a lesson about life so much as it becomes a punishment for our lives? There’s this movie that came out in the mid-80s called High Spirits. It’s reallya forgettable movie, but there’s a character who is doomed to live the night of her murder for an eternity. Every night, she and her husband Martin reenact their wedding night. Martin accuses her of cheating (which she wasn’t), chases her down and then stabs her. She dies and then the next night it’s back to the same thing chase and stab again. By the time the audience sees the unfortunate bride and her husband replay her murder, they’ve been at it for over a hundred years. (Once again, however, she is released from her eternal bonds by love. She finds the true love of her life, played by Steve Guttenberg. Win some, lose some, eh?). But this poses a very interesting question. Ok, Nietzsche wants us to find meaning in our lives, but what if the real meaning is in our death? There’s this idea that meaning has to be cultivated over a lifetime. That, taken as a whole, life either has or hasn’t meaning. But why is this so? There are plenty of people who say that their entire point of view about life changed in a single moment. All the meaning of one’s life can be crammed into one, singular moment. So why not live that moment for an eternity? That’s ok, only if the moment we are living is worth living for an eternity, but what if it’s one of those punishment moments? What if, if we are doomed to eternal punishment, we have to live the single worst moment of our lives for an eternity? In the movie Salvage, a young woman is forced (again, for seemingly inexplicable reasons, well at first anyway) to live the day of her murder over and over. As she begins to realize that she’s repeating the same day over and over, she attempts to find ways to stop her murder from taking place. But, it seems that no matter what she does, she always ends up at home, where the murderer brutalizes her before murdering her and burying her body in a field. We think, like she does, if she can just figure out what’s going on, much like Phil in Groundhog Day, she can break the cycle. But here’s the thing. She’s not repeating her murder to figure out anything about her life at all. In the grand scheme of things she really doesn’t matter at all. It’s because it’s not about her life, it’s about her death. She is a part of someone else’s punishment. She’s not stuck in her own eternal return, she’s struck in her murderer’s eternal return. He is being punished for murdering the young woman, her boyfriend, and a bunch of other people. He has to feel her pain, but the only way he can feel her pain is if she feels the pain of being murdered. That made me think, if a person chooses to take the demon up on his offer, exactly whose lives are involved? Is everyone you know doomed to be a part of your eternal repetition? If they are not, are they just facsimilies of the people you know? Is eternal return a group effort or is each person’s recurrance solipsistic? (and if that is, how can I be sure that my life isn’t now?). If I’m in something like Groundhog Day, and if everyone else wasn’t repeating the day as I was, who were those people that I was dealing with? Were they convinvingly realistic looking holograms like the holodeck on Star Trek:TNG? If Igot to know those hologram people, did I really know the people that I thought that I knew once time returned to normal? You know, this may have all been an exercize in overthinking. I should try to just sit back and enjoy what I’m watching instead of analyzing everything for it’s “philosophical significance”.