Our Guiding Myth


Every culture is guided by a central myth. What is ours? Part of our ruling social myth is that those who are rich generally deserve it. They come up with ingenious and perhaps “disruptive” ideas. They work hard. The system rewards some of them with enormous wealth, plus which they are allowed to pass much of this wealth to heirs.

Following the unexamined metaphor of “the invisible hand,” most of us believe this system produces “progress” and benefits the society. It is said to be “fair” for the lucky few to reap enormous rewards, and that otherwise they might not have bothered to invent, organize, and persist.

What are the other beliefs? A market guided by consumer demand, induced or not, necessarily leads to social good. The system needs no regulation, which is “burdensome” by definition. Entrepreneurs are motivated by the lure of extreme wealth, not by laws that allow them to gather the necessary pieces to accomplish something.

But assume for a moment that the scientific consensus about global warning is correct. That reality will not be altered by discouraging, as this administration seeks to do, the use of terms such as “fact-based decisions.” If the consensus is correct, then humankind needs to phase out its burning of fossil fuels and other activities that emit greenhouse gas . This would require not a shrinking away of public authority guided by something other than a profit motive but a strengthening of such authority. Our criterion would need to be not short-term profit, but social good.

A friend of mine married a woman who turned out to have been given $10 million, and later much more when her father died. Their honeymoon was at a seaside resort with private cabins that rented for $700 per night. My friend did not want to become dependent on his wife’s money. When their flight was delayed on the way home, he arranged for them to stay at a historic hotel with a sweeping view of the sea for a tenth of the honeymoon nightly fee.

This woman belonged to a group of people who had inherited money and maintained a foundation that accepted their donations and sent them on site visits. The group also sponsored an annual event at which these rich people shared their experiences. Turns out that many felt that it was unfair to have so much more money than most people, but that they could not imagine living without the wealth.

It reminded me of the scene in Anthony Minghella’s movie,“The Talented Mr. Ripley.” The lead character is a men’s room attendant who lives in a New York basement, but who is mistaken for a Princeton graduate when he borrows a jacket to play piano to accompany a friend at a private concert. He is dispatched by a rich ship-builder to lure back his son back from Italy where the son uses his generous allowance to sail, play jazz, plan a skiing holiday, and live with his girl-friend overlooking the Mediterranean.

When Mr. Ripley arrives by sea in Italy he is accosted by a woman who is a textile heiress and is allowed to believe he is the rich son. Later, Mr. Ripley and the textile heiress talk while descending the Spanish Steps in Rome. She explains that “if you’ve had money your whole life, you despise it—right?” But, she adds, “you’re only comfortable around other people who have it and despise it.”

In 1984 I met a man with a personal fortune of about $90 million, which at that time was a lot of money. He was engaged in selling off houses and boats because he lacked time to use all of them. Instead, he wanted to help end the cold war, in part through setting up a foundation that supported citizen diplomacy between our country and the Soviet Union.

I once asked this man what effect it would have if he were allowed to grow his business but then, inspired by the native American ritual of the “potlatch” would take part in an annual feast at which his enterprise would be praised and he’d give back to the community all but a modest multiple of the average income in the society. After chewing a mouthful of omelet and toast, he said such a system wouldn't diminish his motivation at all: “what other game is there?”

While it’s refreshing to encounter the odd rich person who tries to do substantial social good, progressives would ask “what about a society is which nobody has gross wealth, in which everybody has access to the basics, and in which the laws favor enterprise, but as shaped by a democratic sense of the good of the community”?

This would test several propositions: that beneficial enterprise is supported more by the ease of starting something than by the lure of gross personal wealth. That the good of the community requires something more than competition for market share in a market governed by individual consumer choice. That corporations committed to short-term profit will not be allowed to cause harm to the community, as, for example, by dumping pollution, as by shipping jobs abroad, as by exploiting the government even while attacking it, as by also exploiting public resources such as mining or drilling rights, as by evading taxes, as by allowing dangerous working conditions.

The rich are not necessarily evil, as some progressives assume. They may be arrogant, feeling that they “deserve” all they accumulate. But many rich people are lucky. I have met various entrepreneurs who were bright and hard-working, but had not yet “made it.” and perhaps never would. In addition to the folks who despise money but are comfortable only around other rich people who despise money, it is also hilarious how quickly many US people who gather a fortune think they “deserve” it, and how automatically they equate progress with whatever turns a profit. But it’s our myth, the story that almost all of us are taught.

Rather than being blinded by a myth with which we grew up, what if we found out what would motivate ingenious people to organize for social good?

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