Friday, March 9, 2012

"Occupy Rousseau" and Challenge Inequality in America

300 years ago, a watchmaker in Geneva, Switzerland, fathered a son who became the first powerful voice against inequality in an urbanizing Europe in which the costs of capitalism and private property were already clear. Jean-Jacques Rousseau proclaimed in his Social Contract that men, though born free, were everywhere in chains. In time, he became an inspiration to the French revolutionaries.

Astonishingly, three centuries later, inequality continues to dog capitalism and taint democracy's legitimacy -- worse now even than back then. Equality and equality's advocates continue to take a beating in an America whose democracy counts dollars rather than votes, and in which the disparities between rich and middle and middle and poor deepen day by day. Take, for example, these harsh realities:
  • American Latinos and African-Americans, their wealth mainly invested in their homes, have lost 65% or more of their net worth during the housing crisis;

  • Social mobility, the historical remedy to America's inequality problems, is freezing up, with more than a few of those European countries labeled "socialist" here ahead of us on the upward mobility list;

  • Mega-billionaires like Home Depot founder Ken Langone and Warren Buffet say they would gladly pay higher taxes, but tax increases have become a taboo subject for Democrats and Republicans alike;

  • One of four American children live under the poverty line;

  • What would Rousseau say to all this? "The first source of evil is inequality," is what he wrote. To the protesters at Occupy Wall Street he would recall that democracy's a "law we give to ourselves" that requires participation and direct engagement in the making of a common will.


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