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Disparity of Wealth

When John Adams went to France to solicit aid for the American Revolution, he was shocked by the disparity of wealth he found there.
    He was familiar with wealthy families in his homeland, in Massachusetts, but even their grandest estates could not compare with those of the European aristocracy, with their castles and palace gardens. On the other hand, even the poorest people at home seemed better off than the average peasant in France, which amounted to 90% of the population.
    At the time, Europe had been shaped by centuries of feudal economics and decimating wars waged by their aristocracy. This bred a disparity between rich and poor that became a matter of caste that a person was born into. A middle class had formed among merchants, but it was still small in comparison to the poor, uneducated masses, who barely had enough to survive. That the wealthy enjoyed riches that were siphoned from the under-classes was just accepted as the way of things. The privileged lords considered themselves superior over everyone else. Those beneath them were convinced of that as well. While religion assured everyone of just rewards in heaven that superseded earthly treasure, this was little comfort to starving children.
    With the coming of science during the Renaissance, people began to question things. With every discovery, it seemed that more and more of the mysteries of the world were being unveiled from their secrecy. At the root of all these discoveries was the inquiring mind, searching for truth with a new, liberated integrity. Humanity was evolving away from superstition and ignorance, and changing the world for the better.
    A number of philosophers emerged from these exciting yet turbulent times, including Sir Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Sir Isaac Newton, David Hume, Baron de Montesquieu, Emanuel Kant, Voltair, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Rene Descartes, Baron D'Holbach, and Denis Diderot.
    Their collective works changed the world they lived in, introducing religious tolerance, free thought, natural law, separation of governmental powers, the benefits of freedom and education for all, and the idea that governments were based on a social contract that the people could change if they so pleased.
    While these ideas did influence the direction of European society for the better, the greatest beneficiary of Enlightenment and Idealist thinking fell upon the American colonies of England. Here, class distinctions were less significant, and there were many opportunities for mobility. When the nation's founders read the works of John Locke and others, they saw how well it fit their own circumstances. They already felt removed from European aristocracy, and had initiated their own form of self-governing. They had been separated from religious wars and hierarchic oppression for several generations. A certain amount of independence was already in their DNA. Living in the New World, they could experiment with Age of Enlightenment ideas as was not possible elsewhere.
    When the Declaration of Independence was unveiled, it reflected just those ideas. The Constitution which followed did likewise, providing the new United States with a republic unlike any that had ever been seen, one that consciously maximized freedom through a social contract, recognized natural rights and laws, and constructed checks and balances to assure its perpetuation.
    Many assumed that the system would fail, but it did not.
    One of the reasons for its success, however, was that citizens already experienced a general form of egalitarianism that made a democratic republic possible. They could buy into it, and not fear the subversion of an aristocracy. When France went through their own liberation years later, it was quite different. The aristocracy was so distrusted that terrible efforts were made to eliminate them completely — an ill beginning that took years to repair.
    Karl Marx later claimed that European capitalism would eventually create such a disparity of haves and have-nots, that the lower classes would rebel against the upper and create an economy based on socialism. No doubt, the French Revolution was on his mind when he wrote this.
    Most developed countries in the West were able to avoid this outcome by raising a widespread, basically satisfied working class, who exercised power through elected representatives. This inclusivity easily pushed aside thoughts of rebellion. Capitalism did well in building a path to relative prosperity for most people. Marx's predictions failed, as did future experiments based on his outline of communism, in China and Russia. Ventures into moderate socialism have yet to be adequately evaluated. Liberal democracy's capitalism still reigns supreme.
    In today's world, however, things are changing. Wealth disparity has multiplied exponentially in the United States. We now have individuals whose income far exceeds that of any monarch of the past. Despite declarations of equality, they do exert power that average people do not. Like European peasants of long ago, we accept this as just the way things are.
    With the economic crash of 2008, came a shock of insecurity reverberating throughout the land. It was caused by paper transfers of wealth that most people could not understand. While thousands of workers get laid off, jobs get outsourced overseas, illegal immigrants come in by the millions, and credit becomes scarce, CEOs are still reaping million dollar incomes and bonuses — after contributing to the ruin of other people's jobs. Government bailouts add salt to the wound, as Everyman's taxes are being siphoned off to save financiers and industries that continue to terminate jobs and cut benefits. Previous feelings of hope and success are being replaced by fear and hardship.
    Despite the direction we seem to be heading, Marx's idea of economic rebellion is nowhere to be seen. That's not how we handle things in a representative government. We look for civilized answers, even as political extremists continue in their fruitless, unending, ideological tug-of-war. Despite the drone of the status quo, serious people are looking for effective answers. They see the flaws that brought us to this point, and are thinking of creative ways to repair the situation. Extremists hinder the process, but then, they remain as they have always been, a burden that free people have to bear in the name of freedom. We need to look beyond them.
    When disparity of wealth becomes excessive, as it is today, it becomes problematic. National policies are shaped to appease wealthy political benefactors that are not necessarily conducive to the public good. Secret deals are negotiated, favors sought and given, corruption becomes the norm. There is nothing new about political corruption. What is new is to what extent and how ingrained it has become. That an Illinois governor feels comfortable enough to openly auction a Senate seat for personal profit, suggests volumes about dealings that are less noticed. Open solicitation is wrong, but the understanding that comes from a wink and a nod seems to be okay.
    When leaders falsify information that leads to war, and the only ones who benefit are military-related businesses, and no indictment is forthcoming, then we have lost our capacity for righteous outrage. The system, so meticulously formed, is failing us.
    Or more precisely, we are failing it.
    The Enlightenment Age ideals that free democracies were based on only work when people buy into them. Representative government and free market dynamics do not succeed on their own. People are the ones who make it work — people inspired by high minded ideals and the kind of rationalism that make those ideals viable.
    We need to remind ourselves that personal virtue was not mentioned in the Constitution because it was considered a given. When greed overcomes prudence, temperance and humility, capitalism becomes something it was not supposed to be .
   
John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were very impressed by the wealth of the French aristocracy at the time. Nevertheless, they turned their backs on it to forge a nation based on egalitarianism. The framers of the Constitution, many of them financially comfortable, met in secret because, in building a nation based on equality, they might be considered traitors to their caste. If greed and power were in the forefront of their minds, the results would have been very different. President George Washington would have declared himself king, and was even bidden to do so. Yet after two terms he quietly stepped down, setting the standard for all future White House residents.
   
We have what it takes to straighten things out because all those heroic minds come to us as our inheritance. It is not enough to honor them on state occasions, or study them in history classes. We need to learn from them as a child learns from a caring parent, or a student hungering for knowledge from a mentor. These ideas, and so much more, are who we are when let ourselves. From Greek and Roman philosophers, to chivalric romances, to Renaissance achievements, to Enlightenment thought, to the liberation of Idealism, the responsibility of existentialism and the insights of science — we have a steady progression of development that needs to be recognized, honored and, most of all, lived.
   
We have praised our vices and exaggerated our weaknesses for far too long. Human evolution need not take such a circuitous route to find what lies in front of us already. Greed and the lust for power are far more of an inconvenience than our natural graces and moral inclinations. Only constant distraction and propaganda leads us in that direction. Just a moment's prodding calls virtuous talk from the meanest of our kind, who readily defends virtue despite his own straying.
   
The power to bring peace to the world, to clean our atmosphere and oceans, to feed the poor and clothe the naked, to bring justice out of anarchy, is nowhere else but in our hands. This is the very essence of Chivalry-Now.

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