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Synthesis/Regeneration 22   (Spring 2000)

Thinking Economically

Economic Justice in the New Millennium

by Larry Rinehart, the Greens/Green Party USA

Direct Redistribution of Wealth: Regulation of Income and Property. In August 1995, the program of the Greens/Green Party USA was amended to include a guaranteed minimum income, and a maximum wage of 10 times the minimum wage; the intent being that the income of the richest not exceed that of the poorest by more than a factor of 10. In January 2000, Joel Kovel in his presidential platform for the California primary, proposed a maximum/minimum income ratio of only 4:1, and added a cap of $2 million on personal assets, to be maintained by confiscatory taxes. In a time when the upward removal of wealth, from the lower to the highest stratum of the capitalist pyramid, has been rampant for two full decades, no one need be surprised that such direct modes of address to this crisis are being proposed.

...the program of the Greens/Green Party USA was amended to include a ... maximum wage of 10 times the minimum wage...

The Perspective of Liberty. But how do such proposals square with liberty? What about the unalienable rights of the rich? How shall we justify such a program to those who believe their pursuit of happiness will be tyrannically restricted on a mere $2 million, or $10 million, or $50 million? Liberty is a social and ultimately political form of freedom, in which the rights of each individual exist in tenuous balance with the rights of all others. In order for liberty to survive in a society, there needs to be a broad consensus or concord among the members of that society, a concord more of feeling than of ideology, that the affirmation of one's own rights involves the acceptance of the rights of all others, and that the latter in turn may involve certain voluntary self-limitations, all very much in accord with the spirit of liberty.

How shall we justify such a program to those who believe their pursuit of happiness will be tyrannically restricted on a mere $2 million, or $10 million, or $50 million?

A Millennial Consensus? And when in the course of events the members of a society declare themselves citizens of a democratic republic, they may form a consensual majority to assure that children need not go hungry or uneducated, while a few grow rich; that the very poorest need not perish while a few build vast fortunes; and that a just function of their government shall be the regulation of income and assets to these ends. The historical formation of such a consensual majority in these states, during the first decade of the new millennium, is the task for a rhetoric of persuasion still to be invented; but the Green campaign 2000 can be an important arena for displaying this idea to the minds of the electorate: That a sovereign people, acting through the instrument of their government, may justly limit the acquisition of excessive private wealth, on behalf of the health, education and welfare of that people themselves, as a whole.

The Mandate of Zero Growth. Another set of considerations in support of limiting income and property, has to do with a requisite reorganization of the macroeconomy, from a paradigm of growth to one of steady state. Consider Herman Daly's analysis: To avoid ecological devastation of our finite planet, we must (1) stabilize the human population at some supportable number, and (2) stabilize the capital volume of the human economy at some reasonable average wealth per capita. Economic development and transformation continue, but without increasing the quantitative scale of the economy, or the resulting entropic pollution of ecosystems. By thus acknowledging our true ecological situation as a species, in the very structure of our economic institutions, we draw public attention to the limited resources for distribution, so that ethical considerations, motivated by compassion, suggest exactly the kind of regulation of income and property that is outlined above.

Differences with Marx and Certain Socialists. This modest proposal is different from the Marxist one in several respects: First, it acknowledges planetary limits, whereas Karl Marx was as much the Faustian technocrat as Andrew Carnegie, or Henry Ford. Second, it preserves the institution of private property, which Marx would abolish outright, only subjecting it to more explicit regulation than hitherto. There are other socialists who feel it is property itself that is the root of economic evil, and must be extirpated. But it seems to me that the evidence of territorial instinct is sufficient to render the institution plausibly biological. Properly regulated, it need not generate more than a moderately stratified distribution of wealth. Nor is there any need to insist on a radical levelling or absolute equality of wealth, as again some socialists propose: what would be the point? As Thoreau pointed out, the wisest have sometimes (or did he say always?) lived more simply than the poor. But for those less wise, who long to rise on the axis of assets, what harm can it do to accomodate them, within reasonable limits? The accomodation of the maximum possible diversity is a deep ecological principle, and diversity of economic assets, ranged on a moderate scale of richer and poorer, seems natural enough.

In human society, such accommodations are closely related to the sense of concord, with its feelings of mutual compassion and tolerance, in the absence of which liberty cannot long endure.

The Civil Theology of the Declaration. Traditionally there is another basis of liberty, more ultimate than some random agreement among some arbitrary group of human beings. This other basis, which is essentially mythical, is also a potential rhetorical resource for Greens and others working toward a millennial consensus for compassion and concord, with rational regulation of income and assets. I am referring of course to the "laws of nature and of nature's God" which, according to the Declaration of 1776, entitle a people to "separate and equal station…among the powers of the earth." And also to the "creator" by whom all "men" are "endowed with certain unalienable rights." In short, to the essentially enlightenment civil theology underlying the earliest founding document of these states.

Now theology is always controversial: Some spurn it as a distraction from reality, business, politics. Many devote themselves so ardently to specific theological formulations that they find themselves polarized in hatreds with those who formulate the mystery differently. But the civil theology implicit in the Declaration simply posits that the entitlement of a people to declare themselves such, and the rights, including liberty, of each individual, are ultimately grounded in a divine mystery, nature's God, creator; of whom Thomas Paine wrote "THE WORD OF GOD IS THE CREATION WE BEHOLD" (his caps). US Greens who are conversant with God (or Goddess) language may find both their own philosophical reflections, and their discourse with others broadened and deepened by remembering this nonsectarian theology of the Declaration. Greens who have no use for theology might nevertheless thoughtfully observe how widespread is the belief in a supreme Being, especially in these states, and what effective use of the rhetoric of divinity is made in certain other political quarters in this country.

One Historical Precedent. One further potential resource for a rhetoric of persuasion, aiming at a millennial consensus, is the historical example of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who showed what can be accomplished within the democratic-republican institutions as presently constituted, when an able leader is backed by a large majority of the people. "We must lay hold of the fact," he argued, "that economic laws are not made by nature. They are made by human beings." (7/2/32) "We have," he added, "a clear mandate from the people, that Americans must forswear that conception of the acquisition of wealth which, through excessive profits, creates undue private power over private affairs and, to our misfortune, over public affairs as well." (1/4/35) He spoke prophetically of "the coming of new and more practical forms of representative government throughout the world wherein privilege and power will occupy a lesser place and world welfare a greater." (1/4/35) Nor was FDR loath to preach from the "bully pulpit" values more grounded in the civil theology than the corporate hype and propaganda issuing from Washington today: "We do assert that the ambition of the individual to obtain for him and his a proper security, a reasonable leisure, and a decent living throughout life is an ambition to be preferred to the appetite for great wealth and great power." (1/4/35) "It has been well said that a selfish and greedy people cannot be free." (7/19/40)

It is painfully obvious that the prophecies of this heroic statesman, including his definition of basic, universal human rights as "freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want, and freedom from fear everywhere in the world" (1/6/42), are still very far from fulfillment. But here is a concrete historical example of governing values capable of enacting substantial economic reforms on the scale, or nearly so, of the new regulations on income and property proposed by Greens. Whether the rhetoric of Franklin Roosevelt offers anything of inspiration or usefulness, Greens will of course judge for themselves.

A Summation of Sorts. Myself, ever since discovering Herman Daly's "Steady-State Economics" in the mid-eighties, I have been deeply persuaded of the justice, and of the importance, of democratically regulating private accumulations of capital, which beyond a certain magnitude become unwarranted and illegitimate instruments of public power. I am delighted that Greens are coming forward with these proposals, and I've tried in this article to highlight a few continuities with traditions of these states—the social dimension of liberty, the validity of democratic consensus, the civil theology of the Declaration, the rhetoric of the New Deal—as well as to contrast the steady-state economy with its regulated income and property, to the rather different prescriptions of Marx—all with the aim of assembling rhetorical support for the radical measures mentioned in the opening paragraph.

One last suggestion: let's try to focus debate initially on the principles rather than the numbers. If throwing out specific numbers (4:1, $2 million, etc.) helps to grab people's attention, great. But opponents must not be allowed to obscure the underlying issues by spurious attacks on specific numerical proposals.

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