Thursday, November 3, 2005

It's the Wealth, Stupid

Government should be (and, I am told, used to be) a middle class, lunchpail type of profession. There should be very little room for aristocrats, because wealth and justice tend to be the oil and water of public life.

I wrote about this a little last month, but it is a point that's difficult to belabor, given the fact that it gets so little attention from the mass media. Recently, however, some have begun to notice: see this tallying of the Bush Ivy League Society by David Ignatius of the Washington Post.

We're going to have to reach a point where we clearly perceive that stable and responsive government is not truly served by wealth, and then demand, with our votes and our voices, that some measure of modesty is restored to leadership.

Excess cannot lead well, because its conditioned response is to grasp. It cannot serve, because it has been taught to rule. Wealth, in our culture, is accumulated via force, and maintained through the intimidating pressure of competition. Thus Lao Tzu wrote some 2,600 years ago:

The best leader is himself led
He builds consensus, achieves his aim,
And then departs.
Force and intimidation
Are neither his means nor his end.


This was a man who lived in a culture much like ours—one ruled by wealth and driven by excess. Here's how he described it in another of his poems:

The palace in the capital
Is bathed in opulence,
While the fields without lie barren,
And the granary is left untended.

They array themselves in lustrous gowns
And gleaming weapons at their sides.
They eat, but are not nourished;
They drink, yet thirst consumes them.
Their lives are bloated with the stuff of wealth.


Isn't it amazing to think how little has changed in 2,600 years, and how small the difference in human madness between East and West?

Today, we have a President whose cheek still bears the mark of the silver spoon; and he has never outgrown it. His Vice-President is a corporate kingpin, the former CEO of a company that has profited lustily on the war in Iraq and the other acts of economic opportunism that have defined this administration, from post-Katrina rebuilding to tax cuts for the greatest profiteers of history.

The problem with wealth, from a pragmatic standpoint, is the same as the problem with tyranny. The latter we have discussed frequently (most recently here); and we have touched briefly before on the former. As Cervantes' character Sancho Panza was fond of reminding us, "greed always bursts the bag." He meant that excess winds up burying itself under the weight of its own overabundance, and thus we see supposedly intelligent people doing the most incomprehensibly stupid things.

Why did Martha resort to insider trading that she knew was illegal, when the loss she would have incurred otherwise would have been as a fly on an elephant's back, given her massive wealth? Why did Mr. Ebbers allow his organization to spin out of control into a mudpit of corruption, when he had both the influence and the money to rein it all in? Why did Mr. Abramoff fall from the idealistic heights of his youth to the aberrant depravity of his years as a Congressional lobbyist? What is the thread that connects all these sordid tales of waste, criminality, and arrogance?

I think it's the unconscious mind: these people undermined themselves in an unconscious act of emergent body-wisdom. Something in them recognized that they had so far overreached the boundaries of natural behavior as to make them inwardly sick, such is the revulsion that excess inevitably creates within the true self. Many criminologists will tell you the same thing: every crook secretly wishes to be caught.

Perhaps that is the dynamic being played out now in Washington. If this is so, then we should not force it; for to attack or oppose would be to deliver a fresh wave of energy to those we wish to bring down. So let us encourage it instead—with words (to our leaders and our media) and with our votes. But the best encouragement we can give to the restoration of balance in our government is to let our own lives provide leadership by example. Examine your life and find the excess it contains, wherever it may have been allowed to accumulate. Then, discard it.

1 comment:

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