Monday, September 26, 2005

I have a sneaking affection for this Lee Harris post at Tech Central, because it's so much less dogmatic than it could be.

The way the waitresses saw it, McGovern's plan was not perceived as a fair and equitable redistribution of our society's collective wealth. Instead it was seen as an attempt to rob their children of the fortune that each of them might just somehow provide for their kids, despite the overwhelming odds that any of them could ever be in a position to acquire a fortune of sufficient size to have it confiscated by the McGovern plan.

The waitresses accepted the inequality of wealth in the United States; they did not mind that some people could leave their kids millions of dollars, so long as they had a chance to do the same thing -- no matter how infinitesimal this chance might be. To them, the fact that some people had lots more money than others did not annoy them, nor did it call forth a desire to take from the rich and give to the poor. They accepted the chanciness of human existence, like gamblers placing their bets on the spin of a roulette wheel.

At the time, being a liberal Democrat myself, I pondered deeply over the position taken by the waitresses. Ought I mock it, or was there something there worthy of my respect and even admiration?

Eventually I came to see more to admire than to mock -- but that was only after I had begun to understand the role that the human imagination plays in the construction of our social order.

The waitresses at Woolworth's disliked McGovern's welfare state politics because it was threatening to take away one of life's most important imaginary pleasures -- that of imagining yourself rich. Everyone who is not rich can instantly understand the world of pleasure that the impoverished hero of The Fiddler on the Roof gets from singing the song: "If I were a rich man…." What bliss it is to pretend you are wealthy! -- far far more fun, I would imagine, than actually being it."

There is a cost to being able to imagine yourself striking it rich, and that is for others to actually strike it rich. In a world where all was brought down to the same level, from which no one could ever escape, even the dream of being a rich man would eventually die out, and along with it, the motive power that has produced the enormous wealth of the West: the fervent belief of the poor that they can become rich -- not by stealing from the rich, but from making a pile for themselves. What else, do you think, has released all the energy of capitalism, except the overheated imagination of men who had to make their own fortune in order to have any at all?

At first I thought we would be lectured about how the waitresses were libertarians who realized the economy would do better if billionaires could give money to their children - otherwise the investors would lose their motivation to back worthy ventures and go to the beach. But no, this is a rather touching and possibly accurate portrait. There's a touch of moralizing further on, but I think you should click through and read it anway.

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