13 July 2011

Past and Present: American attitudes toward wealth

In response to alleged disparagement of "millionaires and billionaires" by the Obama administration, Cal Thomas writes:

Pulling down the strong seems to preoccupy this administration and congressional Democrats. Is that unfair? Where, then, can one find a champion of achievement, risk-taking and capitalism among the Democratic leadership? Many of them are rich; they just don't want too many of the rest of us to become rich....There is something deeply repulsive, even un-American, about this war on achievers. We once held them in higher regard because they built and sustained the nation.

In November 1907, Theodore Roosevelt, a Republican President, wrote the following:

I neither respect nor admire the huge monied men to whom money is the be-all and end-all of existence; to whom the acquisition of untold millions is the supreme goal of life, and who are too often utterly indifferent as to how these millions are obtained. I [thoroughly] believe that the first duty of every man is to earn his own living, to pull his own weight, to support his own wife and family; but after this has been done, and he is able to keep his family according to his station and according to the tastes that have become a necessity to him, then I despise him if he does not treat other things as of more importance in his scheme of life than mere money getting; if he does not care for art, or literature, or science, or statecraft, or warcraft, or philanthropy -- in short, for some form of service to his fellows, for some form of the kind of life which is alone worth living.

Roosevelt could not be accused of envy -- though I suppose some modern Republicans might make the charge. At the center of the excerpt above is a sentiment with which none of them would disagree -- "the first duty of every man is to earn his own living, [etc.]" -- yet at some point Roosevelt and his successors diverge. That point comes when each century contemplates the richest Americans. When Roosevelt reaffirmed an individual's personal responsibility to earn his own living, he probably didn't have John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie or J. P. Morgan in mind as role models for the common man. But as a spokesman for 21st century Republicans, Thomas refuses to discriminate. In his opinion, you cannot criticize a billionaire without "trash[ing] success and promot[ing] class division and envy of the successful." When Thomas exhorts politicians to "use successful people as examples for the poor to follow," he presumably does have the richest Americans in mind. He would compel us to admire them, presumably, while recognizing no point when "achievers" become avaricious and thus less worthy of admiration -- except, perhaps, when they reveal themselves as Democrats.

The issue here is not whether Teddy Roosevelt would side with Barack Obama -- he would probably find the current President too sentimental or naive in many respects, and probably less worthy of his place in history than Booker T. Washington might have been -- but whether today's Republicans are right about our country's attitude toward wealth in its supposed golden age. They might argue that Roosevelt was an obnoxious exception and little better than his Democratic cousin, but they should recall that on the one occasion when he ran against a Republican, Teddy got more votes.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I am so sick of these right-wing malcontents whining about taxation being a "punishment for success". This is absolute bunk. They say a man should pull his own weight, yet when it comes to taxation, they change their tune entirely and decide the poor and working class should "pull their own weight", but the wealthy aristocracy should pull very little or no weight at all.

Maintaining a civilized society costs money, just as maintaining anything costs money. This comes from taxes. Allowing corporations and the aristocratic wealthy all kinds of tax breaks, write-offs and loop holes that are not afforded to the poor or average working class is the same thing as allowing them to not "pull their weight" when it comes to pushing civilization forward.

If they don't want to have to pay such high taxes, the answer is quite simple: Make less money.