In 2004, as a naval officer with a week of military leave available, I traveled to Scotland and, among other Scottish excursions, visited the resting place of Adam Smith in Edinburgh, whose treatise “The Wealth of Nations” forms the basis of capitalism – that word, alongside socialism, that seems to be framing the 2020 political debate.
No Social Darwinist, Smith was a deeply moral person who also wrote “The Theory of Moral Sentiments.” In that, he wrote, “That we often derive sorrow from the sorrows of others, is a matter of fact too obvious to require any instances to prove it; for this sentiment, like all the other original passions of human nature, is by no means confined to the virtuous or the humane … ”
In other words, I do not believe that the founder of capitalism himself would tolerate the current system that has resulted in fantastic wealth for the few but undue “sorrows” for far too many that makes most of us, at some level, sorrowful ourselves: the greatest level of economic inequality in American history; an epidemic of “deaths of despair,” from suicide to drug overdose; pervasive childhood poverty and elder neglect; a lack of socioeconomic mobility in that America lags behind other advanced nations in providing opportunity to children from lesser means; a dearth of affordable housing; and, frankly, a disregard for very real environmental impacts including climate change.
And, in another way of viewing things, capitalism cannot long endure if such social upheaval and suffering are allowed to continue. Even if Smith weren’t the moral man he was, he would have wanted real change for the sake of capitalism itself.
The key is not to throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. In other words, to preserve this amazing engine of prosperity – capitalism – while combining it with facets of socialism that retain human dignity and socioeconomic mobility. In a way, neither system can endure on its own and without the other – at least over the generations. (Thus, the Republican meme of “Socialism versus Freedom” is false and propaganda.)
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Fortunately, in America, that system – a fusion of capitalism and socialism - already exists and was the foundation of America’s rise throughout the twentieth century. Unfortunately, today, the balance between the two systems is out of whack, where multinational corporations pay a lower tax rate than small, Main Street businesses, and billionaires pay a lower tax rate than their salaried personal assistants. In turn, the social safety net and vehicles of opportunity have been underfunded. And, endless wars of choice – conceived as much by corporate lobbyists and donors as real world exigencies - have cannibalized key funding for education, health care, renewable energy and environmental protection. (Iraq, Afghanistan and the Global War on Terrorism have cost $6 trillion – per Stiglitz and Blimes – more than one quarter of our entire federal debt.)
Moreover, the system is not stable. Massive economic inequality, lack of affordable health care, underperforming schools, a dearth of secure, livable wage jobs, environmental neglect, and an epidemic of “deaths of despair” merely result in more of the same, eventually leading towards breakdown. And, global competition, alongside artificial intelligence, is increasing, putting even greater stress on workers. Finally, climate change will challenge communities as never before.
What’s the answer?
In my estimation, we must do three things: raise additional revenue from America’s wealthiest families and multinational corporations, while providing tax relief to small businesses and the middle class; reallocate budget priorities from non-value-add spending to high value-add investments; and invest according to plan.
Ultimately, we will have a stronger, more just nation, and a more livable planet for all, undergirded by coalescing Adam Smith’s “The Wealth of Nations” and “The Theory of Moral Sentiments.”
John Mues is a Democratic U.S. Senate candidate, fourth generation Montanan, four-time deployed U.S. Naval Academy-commissioned naval officer, Montana teacher and cattle ranch owner, and senior engineer in private sector with London Business School MBA.
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