Monday, July 18, 2011

Wealth Is Not Free

Let's talk about wealth and taxes.

Survival is a personal thing.

Survival is a community thing.

Survival is a planetary thing.

Greed is when a person endangers the systems by which other people, the community, and the planet survives, in pursuit of more than they actually need.

(When a person endangers systems in pursuit of exactly what they need, in the absence of a less destructive way, it is called desperation.)

Personal survival may seem the most natural pursuit of any person. But do we need to choose between personal and community survival? I think we are asked to think so, by persons who have what they need and don't care to share. They reckon it helps them to keep theirs if everyone else believes that personal resource security is the only form of security.

Or, as the political right tells us, "Government isn't the solution. Government is the problem." (Try interchanging "community" and "government".) They want us to believe that using the government to solve broad, shared problems is a danger to personal solutions.

Which is true if a pipe that leads to your bank account is under the spigot of wealth. If you have managed to exclude all of the people who usually just wait at the edge of the fountain pool, you certainly would not want to be told you must also wait for the pool to fill and to take your share with everyone else. You would want the police to protect your right to take more than your share, and you would promote the idea that survival is strictly a personal problem. "I got mine. You can have yours if you can get yours." Convenient for you.

Bad for everyone else. In a hunter-gatherer society, this behavior would be severely constrained. Personal survival does depend on community survival, and greedy behavior can endanger the entire group. That selfish behavior would be unsustainable in the group, and would be stopped. (See Colin Turnbull, The Forest People) In fact, such selfish behavior still is unsustainable. But now the scale of survival is planetary and epochal. Big lag time on accountability today.

And it is not true that personal security is an individual problem, if you are willing to wait for your share at the edge of the pool. Then you do need the authority of community, of elders, of the community council, or your government, to protect you, and to force that big-wealth-bully to conform to community norms. You need full mutual accountability. You need fairness, sharing, and cooperation, at the pool of wealth.

So yes, each of us must seek personal survival, even prosperity, and we can survive, even prosper, within the limits of what the community and the planet can sustain. And no, we do not need to choose between personal and community survival. We can have both, we must seek both, and we must seek harmony of both. As we have always, in ways that define our humanity, over tens and hundreds of millennia, balanced these interests. And certainly we cannot choose between personal and planetary survival.

But we must re-imagine what "prosperity" looks like. We must combat the fallacy of individual resource-based security (money, property, and investments are ephemeral) which militates against community-based security. We must remind ourselves of the prosperity and security we derive from relatives, friends, community, and from the state whose officials we elect and hold accountable, and that these relationships require healthy and sustainable systems. We must work to protect and enhance these systems. We must be willing to let some of our wealth be taken by the community for community goals, such as grouting the fountain of wealth. We must seek sustainable ways to get what we need, ways which are not stained by the impoverishment of others. What is not sustainable on a systems level is not prosperity. Nor is it survival. It is an illusion of prosperity. It is poisoned water.

So no, this is not about the end of ambition. Ambitious people seek solutions. Not greedy ambitious people seek solutions which are of benefit to everyone and the planet. We need creative, ambitious, community-minded people to do their things. Let us design appropriate rewards for our innovators. How about a sustainable planetary eco-system, healthy communities, good schools and medical care, the highest esteem of neighbors, and healthy children? Does any one need more?

And no, this would not be the end of prosperous living. This would be the end of unsustainable excess. This would be the beginning of sustainable abundance for all persons, of healthy habitats for all life, and of a planet glowing green and blue with healthy living systems.

Help debunk the lies. We do not need to choose between personal and community prosperity. We do need to say that the systems of community, of democratic self-governance, and of planetary health, are the best pathways to personal prosperity. People of great wealth do not have an automatic privilege to keep their wealth. Harm comes to people, communities and the planet, when that wealth is not put to work through projects the community values.

There is plenty of wealth out there to pay off the national debt, especially since much of it was gotten from lower taxes during a time of war, when those who wanted that war were not asked to pay for it. Let them pay for it. And then tax them until they begin to feel a real need for the security of healthy communities and a healthy planet.