We generally hold a belief that the arc of history is one of social and economic progress. The current discussion and dialogue in the United States concerning inequality of wealth is one that commenced in colonial times and has occupied our attention in more contemporary ones. The following passage from Jill Lepore’s These Truths presents a concise, cogent view of the issues:
Taxes are what people pay to a ruler to keep order and defend the realm. In the ancient world, landowners paid in crops or livestock, the landless with their labor. Levying taxes made medieval European monarchs rich; only in the 17th century did monarchs begin to cede the power to tax to legislatures. Taxation became tied to representation at the very time that England was founding colonies in North America and the Caribbean, which was also the moment at which the English had begun to dominate the slave trade. In the 1760s, the two became muddled rhetorically. Massachusetts assemblyman Samuel Adams asked, “If taxes are laid upon us in any shape without our having a legal Representation where they are laid, are we not reduced from the Character of free Subjects to the miserable State of tributary Slaves?”
Mr. Adams wrote his sentiments in May of 1764. Those thoughts echo those accompanying the current debate surrounding wealth inequality; and, to a large extent, mimic some of the slogans of the Tea Party revolution with respect to a sense of a tone deaf body of representatives. This is the classic definition of anomie—social instability whereby individuals are disaffected from the purposes of the larger community. This condition offers some explanation for the present political divide in our nation, one marked by “we” and “they” characterizations, a chasm of opposing attitudes exacerbated by insults and name calling.
Unfortunately, at a time when the prescription for this illness might be found in political leadership, that segment of society has, instead, been capitalizing on this anomie to ensure its survival in the power structure of leadership, all the while proclaiming to give voice to disaffection and lead the flock to salvation. Increasingly, industrial and business leaders in the US have begun to address the dangers of an ever-widening wealth gap. Some US billionaires have stated that capitalism is not working to the benefit of the larger population, while others have pledged significant portions of their fortunes to charitable organizations, particularly in education, science, and medicine. One recently contributed $100 million to public education in his home state. At the same time, a number of presidential political candidates have also directly addressed the problem.
Clearly, as Mr. Adams concluded, a more equitable and fair tax system is one fix. Business and economic leaders taking to the bully pulpit can spur action on the political scene. The major missing ingredients are twofold: national leadership and a platform of reform that overcomes the bitter political divide. Otherwise, all remain slaves to their own points of view.