A Delicate Constitution

“You know, if humans are still around three centuries from now,” my husband remarks, “they are going to wonder why a country founded on the principles of equality and justice had so much trouble making that true for everyone. Why it after centuries of blood and tears, there was still resistance. I mean, WTF?” He turns away from the news on his screen and adds, “They are also going to wonder why the richest country in the world could not bring itself to give all its citizens basic health care.”

For the lag in equality and justice, all I can offer is pained agreement. For healthcare, dozens of murky, layered, complicated reasons spring to mind, all bandied about regularly—but, big picture? He could be right. The failure is simpler than we make it.

I imagine those future humans will be as puzzled as British observers were in the 1830s, when they saw crowded slave pens clustered around the National Mall in D.C. The Brits watched enslaved men, women, and children get shipped south or auctioned off at local taverns, then reread our Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

It is hard to pursue happiness when your limbs are chained. It is equally hard when you encounter hatred daily, or your heart beats erratically and excess blood sugar poisons your blood. Why wave principles aloft if you have no intention of following them? Disconnects are everywhere, of course—have you ever heard a high-flown corporate mission statement then eavesdropped on the invective flowing from the C-suite? But when the principles are your very reason for existing, the foundation of your nation….

I ask my live-in historian if other societies have matched our absurd ability to detach from our own identity, our core ideals. “Sure,” he says, and thinks a minute. “In the mid-seventeenth century, the English and Dutch republics fought each other. They were the only two major Protestant republics in Europe. Yet despite sharing a common religion and a common form of government, they went to war over commerce.” Over trade and overseas colonies, to be specific. The motivation? Greed.

His next example is Athens, birthplace of the very principles of democracy we have been fighting to uphold. But alongside that noble and elegant form of government, the Athenians made a relentless push for empire. Their Delian League gathered other city-states into a military alliance, ostensibly to guard against the Persians, and it soon became an Athenian empire. “It was a cash cow,” Andrew explains. “People were ordered to conform and pay tribute, and when they objected, an Athenian general said, ‘The strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must.’ Doesn’t sound very democratic to me.”

It sounds like greed. The theme is coming clear: Principle is sacrificed in order to either amass wealth or protect wealth. But what about the tortuous pursuit of equality and justice in the United States? On the surface, that does not fit the pattern. It feels more ideological, given how eager White citizens were (and still are) to think themselves intellectually and morally superior to Blacks.

Nope. Again, there was an economic throughline.

Slavery was in decline in 1793. Then a Connecticut Yankee named Eli Whitney created the cotton gin and presto chango, growing cotton was profitable. That made doing away with slavery inconceivable. When you pursue greed, though, you need to rationalize and justify your self-interest. So slavery was characterized as a necessary evil; it got jobs done that many believed no White man would ever do, just as Mexicans are welcomed when they sweat to pick us fruits and veggies.

Later, the argument morphed: Slavery was not a necessary evil but a positive good, stabilizing the social order as well as the economy. It took the bloodiest war in our history to undo that thinking—and social and economic equality did not follow. Why not? Because it was more economically advantageous for those in power to reserve the best education, the best-paying jobs, the best health care, and the safest neighborhoods for Whites.

The promise of this nation (at least for the original immigrants) was that by dint of hard work and character, you could amass a fortune and rise as high as you liked in a supposedly classless society. Money, not history or shared culture, drove us, and wealth became our class system. We replaced bloodlines with acquisition and nobility with a clutch of millionaires.

Now those millionaires are billionaires, the only group to have gained wealth since the Great Recession. The fifty richest Americans are currently worth as much as the poorest 165 million. And we have a new class, the precariat. “For the first time in history many people have education above the level of labour they can expect to obtain,” notes economist Guy Standing, author of The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class. The well-educated members of the precariat live in financial uncertainty, often with chronic debt, unstable employment, no benefits. Work they could have done was outsourced. The motivation? Greed.

As recently as the 1980s, the gap between classes was not so pronounced. But by 2016, the wealthiest five percent of households in the United States had 248 times as much wealth as families in the second quintile. (The first quintile cannot be compared, because their wealth is so often zero or a negative number.) As for the middle class, the Pew Research Center’s data shows it shrinking steadily since 1971.

Where will greed take us next? Oddly, that is hard to predict, because people with scant wealth so often vote against their own economic interests. Instead, they align with the wealthy, because that is who they want to be. As John Dickinson reminds John Hancock in 1776, “Most men with nothing would rather protect the possibility of becoming rich than accept the reality of being poor, and that is why they will follow us.”

Horatio Alger’s economic mobility is far less possible today, but the promise stands—and with it the urge for acquisition. Greed does not belong only to the wealthy. In a society driven toward material wealth to prove itself godly and worthwhile—and frightened because that wealth is less and less attainable—there can be a scramble just for the basics. People grab whatever they can, like siblings who managed to be civil for years but are now brawling over a dead relative’s will.

Humans have always told stories about what they want to be—and rarely, if ever, lived up to the ideals of those stories. To understand the discrepancy, follow the money.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.