I have been working hard the last few months to think through my underlying beliefs about the role of government in human life. I have a friend who believes that the rights of the individual are supreme. Everything begins and ends there. Something about this deeply troubles me, but I haven’t been able to figure out what it is. I think it is the fact that I do not believe that individuals reflect reality. It’s not that I believe, like the Buddha, that the individual is an illusion. I do believe in individual human personality. I don’t think we’re all ultimately going to be joined into one cosmic impersonal force. But an approach to politics that is based on the individual takes for granted that the individual is actually the supreme reality. What if, as many Native Americans have believed, the supreme reality is actually the interconnectedness of all things? If this is the truth of things, then when I support policies that benefit me and harm you, I am doing damage to both of us.
The other huge problem I have with individualism as the basis for political ideology is that ultimately this path can do nothing but endorse (and in a militant way) approaches to government that favor structuring the system to benefit those with the most brains, or the least scruples, or the most mental stamina, or the best access to various resources such as education and social support. Why should our system be structured this way?
Our current laws are set up so that banks can legally rape you — financially speaking. Why should this be? Our current laws are set up so that wealthy people who happen to own land and property can legally ruin you. Is there a reason why, by default, the system must be structured this way?
In the Bible’s Old Testament, the whole system was set up to prevent the establishment of a permanent underclass. There were strict controls on interest charges (it was often not allowed at all). Interest charges are what allow those who have a lot of money (a few) to make money off of those who do not have it (most people). This, almost by definition, will make slaves of those who do not have money. And it will put them into slavery to those who have the least reason to be patient with them or to show any compassion. When the system is set up so that your misfortune equals my cash cow, you are in a great deal of trouble.
Further, in the Old Testament, every 7 years all debts were canceled whether the lender liked it or not. If someone were seriously in debt, he had the option to sell himself into slavery to work off his debts. But this slavery was never permanent. Every 7 years all slaves were to be set free. And every 50 years was a “year of Jubilee.” In the year of Jubilee, all land was to be returned to its original owner. This meant that if you had received an inheritance, but had become poor and had to sell all or part of this inheritance to pay off debt, you could count on your land returning to you in the year of jubilee. Slavery was never permanent, and you would never be permanently deprived of your land.
I’m not advocating that we return to an Old Testament system of government. I’m merely trying to demonstrate that an economic system can in fact be structured that does not allow the Citibanks and the Wall Streets to run the world. A system can be set up that keeps a wealthy minority from exercising absolute power over the majority. This is precisely what we do NOT have in place right now. Under our current system, wealth equals power and lack of wealth equals lack of power, and only a select few have access to the system that creates wealth to begin with. Thus our current system can do nothing except:
- Establish a permanent underclass
- Provide a way for a few (emphasis few) to move into greater and greater wealth
This second bullet is the elixir that enslaves us. The American Dream is always held out for every person, but the vast majority of people will never be able to dream that dream because the dream itself is largely dependent on things (mentioned above like social support, proper upbringing, etc.) in order to be reachable. The fact that a very small number of people reach it without these supports does not change the validity of the general argument.
The counter-argument, of course, would be, “Why — if you take out a loan from Citibank — should Citibank have to clear your loan before you have paid it off? What kind of system is that?” The answer is that Citibank should have to clear it because Citibank has something you will probably never have — power. Clearing loans is a way to keep power from growing unchecked. Citibank could grow rich beyond most of our wildest dreams, and pay its shareholders, while at the same time, clearing debts completely on a specified timetable. It would simply work it into the system.
What is needed in America is a financial system that is structured so that most people have a chance to live lives of freedom (which means freedom from crushing debt), and have their basic needs met. Perhaps in other posts I will speculate on what options might be available to do this, but what is clear to me at this point is that that is not the kind of system we currently have. Our current system thrives on the ignorance of people, is set up so that the majority cannot understand the laws that govern them, and so that those who wish to understand it will have to spend more time educating themselves than actually living life. Example: Just try to truly understand your cell phone bill. Just that one bill.
Please understand me. I’m not advocating any certain system at this point. All I am saying is that we have so drunk the Kool-Aid of American style capitalism that we cannot even image any alternatives. In fact we have so drunk that Kool-Aid that a great number of the people who are enslaved by our current system will continue to advocate for it, because that system presents itself to us as the very essence of what it means to be American.
We are guaranteed the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But do we have an economic system that actually allows for those things? In future posts I’ll continue to think through this stuff. All I know right now is that I disagree, and strongly, with my friend who believes everything should be structured around the individual. This idea, in practice, can lead to nothing but a society structured around the brightest and most powerful individuals. This, of course, leaves the vast majority out in the cold.
Resource used in this article: The Bible and Bankruptcy