Here’s the first of my extraneous essay postings. It’s a bit I did last fall that my betters at the Corporate Action Network didn’t like. I think it’s okay.
The whole ‘you didn’t build that’ kerfuffle may go down as the dumbest argument in this election cycle — yes you built your business, no you didn’t build all of America’s infrastructure, go read the speech, there’s literally nothing to disagree with — but it brings up an excellent point about responsibility and debt to society.
Phony individualism is ingrained in the American psyche, carved there by the mythification of frontier life and men like Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett. But Lewis and Clark were supported by an expedition and the modern American has been buoyed his entire life by a vast confluence of state and society. Any given American CEO may be an exceptional man or woman, but transplant either of them at birth to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and it’s a fair bet that their prospects will have narrowed somewhat. The discrepancy is due to the state — a system of infrastructure and public goods supported by taxes that are by a developed standard mild — and to the society, which values hard work, which put those men and women on top of their firms because of their merits and not their family or guns, and which supplied every employee under them at their companies, every exceptionally productive person that lets them make the kind of money that they do.
Unfortunately, our collective individualist myth allows us to ignore those crucial supports and to have arguments over ‘you didn’t build that’ and straight-facedly embrace Ayn Rand’s ignorant and dangerous Objectivism on a national stage. We don’t need to lose the praise of the individual — it is a part of what once made us great– but likewise we should not disregard what and who allowed the individual to achieve, which was the other part. Recognition of the debt owed to society is the beginning of public virtue. Paying our executives incredible salaries is no problem, but knowledge of their societal debt is the first step towards them actually paying their taxes and finding their millions without impoverishing their employees.
Ancient Rome produced some of the most capable men the world has ever romanticised, as well as some of the most wicked, and with a fair bit of overlap. It had wealth disparities that most of our new oligarchs can only dream of, but by and large the most valued Roman virtue was service to the Republic, and later the Empire. Roman heroes were Cincinnatus and Scipio Africanus and the first Brutus — great men who had sacrificed for Rome, and it meant that even when Romans strove for glory or wealth, they did it with a knowledge of their debt to the Republic and with a mindset of improving it.
We live in another Republic now of our own making, and I’d like its scant two-hundred odd years to one day grow up and rival Rome’s ten centuries, but it will not get there if our smartest and bravest can’t remember where they came from, can’t remember what made them, and can’t remember where to put their first allegiance. I take no issue with men like Wal-Mart CEO Mike Duke making more than $18 million a year, as long as he does so with an eye to the society that put him where he is and as long as he starts treating even his most minor associates as if they have something to do with his success.
Which he doesn’t. Which is why he’s a fucker.