Did the Founding Fathers embrace wealth inequality?

A different United States…

  • The American Founders were convinced that liberty and equality were not necessarily mutually exclusive
  • The pay ratio between the top executive and the lowest paid worker in a company should be no greater than 20 to 1
  • It’s disconcerting and embarrassing for this nation to tolerate such a self-inflicted national disgrace

In “Livin’ Bernie Sanders’s Danish dream,” an article published in the February 12 issue of the New York Times, David Brooks argues that Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’ proposals will increase the power of the Washington elite and extend the reach of the federal government.

David Brooks asserts: “American capitalism has always been distinct from continental European capitalism. We’ve had more entrepreneurial creativity but less security. Our system has favored higher living standards for consumers while theirs has favored stability for employees and producers.” He continues: “For the past several decades, the United States has had a bipartisan consensus that we should stick to our style of capitalism and our style of welfare state. There has always been a broad consensus that a continent-size nation like ours had to be diverse and decentralized, with a vibrant charitable sector and a great variety of spending patterns and life-styles.”

The author writes: “Sanders would Europeanize American public universities. It sounds great to make college free. In fact, it’s a hugely expensive program that would mostly benefit the already affluent. Slowly, American universities would look more like their European counterparts. They’d be less good.” He also claims: “Bernie Sanders’s America is starkly different from Alexander Hamilton’s or Alexis de Tocqueville’s America or even Bill Clinton’s and Barack Obama’s America.”

Bernie Dave

Photo Courtesy of Courant.com

The American Founders were convinced that liberty and equality were not necessarily mutually exclusive and that they were actually meant to buttress each other up. Many of the Founders believed that the realization of political liberty necessitated some substantial degree of economic equality.

Land, although forcefully or deceitfully acquired from Native Americans, was distributed to 70 percent of white households. The parallel between land distribution and wealth distribution is glaring and enlightening.

Although the Founders were the product of the Enlightenment and many of them were idealists, they were also convinced that the nascent American experiment would not succeed without some sort of a land/wealth distribution that would put most Americans on a level playing field.

Our style of capitalism has been saved a few times by massive government intervention, not unlike the much-criticized European-style interference. Our style of capitalism sent millions of jobs overseas (blame it on globalization, technological advances, insatiable profit-makers, etc.) and could be one of the major reasons for presidential candidates Donald Trump’s and Bernie Sanders’ unanticipated popularity.

Even conservative scholar Charles Murray contends: “The entire American working class has legitimate reasons to be angry at the ruling class. During the past half-century of economic growth, virtually none of the rewards have gone to the working class. The real family income of people in the bottom half of the income distribution hasn’t increased since the late 1960s.” He goes on to excoriate the American corporations: “During the same half-century, American corporations exported millions of manufacturing jobs, which were among the best-paying working-class jobs.”

Furthermore, I do not believe that Hamilton, Jefferson, and the other great American leaders would like to see a United States seriously grappling with some critical standard of living issues. For example, despite significant advances in medicine, technology, and education, the longevity gap between high-income and low-income Americans has been widening markedly.

Moreover, for men born in 1950, there was a 14-year difference (13 years for women) in life expectancy between the top 10 percent of earners and the bottom 10 percent. According to social scientists, economic and social inequities are the paramount causes for this vast life expectancy gap. It’s disconcerting and embarrassing for this nation to tolerate such a self-inflicted national disgrace.

Read: Slate.com – Why David Brooks Shouldn’t Talk About The Poor People

By the same token, low-income residents of Toronto, Canada, have greater cancer survival rates than their counterparts in Detroit. Many economists agree that the extent to which inequality rises or declines is ultimately a political question.

Another salient issue plaguing this nation is wealth inequality. Economists typically measure income inequality using the Gini coefficient, which ranges from zero in cases of perfect equality (everyone earns the same income) to one in cases of perfect inequality (a single individual earns all the income and everyone else gets nothing).

The average Gini coefficient in Europe is 0.25. In the United States, the figure is around 0.40. In the world’s most unequal countries (e.g., South Africa), it exceeds 0.60. Do we really want to see the United States join the league of the world’s most unequal societies?

Even the management expert Peter Drucker argued that the pay ratio between the top executive and the lowest paid worker in a company should be no greater than 20 to 1.

Yes, our nation has unique characteristics and qualities. We do not want to surrender them, as if giving those up meant a crushing defeat and losing our much-cherished identity. George Washington was adamantly opposed to foreign entanglements. And yet, the United States militarily and justifiably intervened in two world wars.

GO-Debt-Denial-rev_600The world is changing and conflicts sometimes compel nations, including ours, to take action against their professed principles and ideals. Societies are dynamic and evolving bodies and identities are developed and shaped over time.

David Brooks also discusses about this nation’s “great variety of spending patterns and life-styles.” If the author is referring to the huge income inequality and the declining purchasing power of tens of millions of Americans, then his remarks are disdainful and insensitive to say the least.

Lately, we are hearing politicians, especially President Obama, utter the following phrase: “That’s not who we are…” Who are we? The perpetrators of the genocide of the Native Americans, unrepentant and abusive slaveholders, suppressors of the civil rights of minorities, murderers of thousands of innocent people overseas, etc. The list is unfortunately long and bloody, and nothing to be proud of. We do not possess a “sacred” DNA, stagnant and lethargic.

Our identity is evolving and hopefully molding into a more compassionate, tolerant, and judicious one. Today’s America might not look like what Alexander Hamilton had in mind. However, if we are striving to build a better society and it might look different from what Jefferson and Lincoln envisioned, then let it be so.

I believe there are enough smart, wise, and trustworthy Americans today (at least the equals of Hamilton) to make pertinent, responsible, and sound decisions regarding the future of our society. Let us not manipulate the past to paralyze our political system and impair our evolving identities.

About the author

Vahe Tcharkhoutian is the founder and editor of Los Angeles Intelligence. He holds a Master of Arts degree in Political Science [American Politics] and a Master of Arts degree in Educational Administration. He currently teaches in Glendale, California.