The Greatest Lie Ever Perpetrated
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness (Preamble to the Declaration of Independence 2.1).”
The 56 founding fathers that signed the Declaration of Independence had a revolutionary vision of democracy that would foster equality and universal opportunity. Ultimately, implementing the vision has been more complicated.
At the time of the writing of the Declaration of Independence, the United States were attempting to shrug off the vice grip of the imperialistic Fatherland that settled North America for the explicit purpose of exploiting the untapped natural and human wealth for capitalistic profit. While some early American colonies were settled for the purposes of exercising religious freedom, the vast majority of early American colonies were actually owned and operated by corporate entities that were deeded large tracts of land by the King of England in an attempt to re-establish the class and business structure that served the elite few so well in the homeland (1)*. For his beneficence, the King received handsome regular shares in the profit from the New World enterprises.
The imperial expansion of England into North America had several, less than democratic side effects. The indigenous Native American population was decimated, slaves and indentured servants comprised the majority of the labor force, and women were regarded as inferior and were hostage to the whims of their fathers and husbands. The signing of the Declaration of Independence and subsequent revolution did not alter the oppressive status quo. When the founding fathers spoke of all men being created equally, it is quite probable they were referring exclusively to white men.
After the revolution, many corporatists remained loyal to the King and were deeded substantial landholdings elsewhere in the empire, but others remained in the United States intent on securing and expanding the fortunes they had harvested from American soil exchanging their loyalty to the dying British Empire for a belief in the new American one. The same social atrocities that prevailed under the former empire were equally fortuitous for business in the new capitalist order.
The pledge of the new nation to nurture democracy was distinctly at odds with its economic goals. While industrialists enjoyed the freedom to pursue wealth unencumbered by royalty with its hand out, the labor force continued to be oppressed or at worse, enslaved. Equality did not translate across class and racial boundaries.
Industry’s interests are best served by free or very inexpensive labor and limited governmental regulation. Even today, corporations unimpeded by national boundaries, choose to operate where labor is cheap and health and environmental regulations are limited or non-existent. Individuals benefit from an exact opposite set of circumstances where they can earn a living wage for an honest day’s work, a safe and healthy work environment, sustainable resource use and an unspoiled natural environment. The ideological and class struggle continues. The biggest lie ever perpetrated is that democracy and unfettered capitalism are compatible ideologies. They are and always have been at odds with one another.
This is not to say that all aspects of free enterprise are bad. Business works best when it is accountable to society. Small businesses and local economies have traditionally fostered rather than impeded public interests. A business owner in a small town cannot treat his workers unfairly and still expect local patronage. He cannot carelessly pollute or consume public resources without consequences. A small, local farmer that is cruel to his animals or mistreats his land will soon find himself out of business. Local economies are inherently self regulating, and it is likely that this kind of community accountability is what Adam Smith had in mind when he spoke of the infamous “invisible hand (2)*” that he believed would guide business towards morally correct and fair behavior.
When Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations almost 300 years ago, the vast majority of capitalistic enterprise was in the form of small, locally owned and operated businesses. Smith could never have envisioned the limited liability corporate monolith that reigns over the modern global economy much as kings once ruled unencumbered by regulatory restraint. Yet the same corporations quote Smith as justification for their unbridled greed, pursuit of exclusive self interest and exploitation of the world’s people and our shared resources. We have exchanged the tyranny of kings for a tyranny of corporations without even realizing our blind complicity.
We have been sold a set of lies, and the mistruths are glaringly obvious. Deregulation of corporations only benefits the bottom line of corporations, not the average person. The era in United States history that enjoyed the greatest growth of the middle class and relative increases in living standards occurred after regulations and social programs were implemented during the New Deal. As we began to deregulate industry again in the 1970’s and 1980’s, the relative wealth of the middle class began to decline once again while the ultra wealthy got richer. Wealth does not trickle down; to benefit all it must percolate from the ground up.
In spite of the distortions endemic in our capitalist society, the democratic promise of equality continues in the hearts and minds of Americans and the global population. How does one pursue life, liberty and happiness? We have basic needs for life - food water, air, shelter and healthcare. To be liberated, we must be free to pursue our life’s purpose unencumbered by the dictates or tyranny of others. Things that make people happy are a supportive family and social network, a sense of satisfaction with ones work, having the basic needs of life met, enjoying health and a healthy environment and having a sense of purpose in life. In the United States of America, we have the capacity and monetary wealth to make the above ideals available to every man, woman and child regardless of race, sex, creed or sexual orientation. It is time to make our laws match our common ideals rather than the financial interests of an elite few. The promise still lives.
1- Korten, David, C. Agenda for a New Economy – From Phantom Wealth to Real Wealth. Berret-Kohler Publishers Inc., San Fransisco, 2009.
2- Smith, Adam. An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. Modern Library, 1937 edition.