At least since the New Deal, we have heard much about what those with some owe to those with little. Franklin Roosevelt coined a term, “economic royalists,” that perfectly captured his view of those who achieved financial success through work and innovation.
An Obligation Without Power
Drawing from a much older theory of kingship, probably unknowingly, many have come to believe that as “kings” of sorts, the “rich” have an obligation to provide for the poor — not unlike the justification for kingship: that the king had the awesome responsibility, allegedly, to shepherd and care for his “subjects.” The rub, of course, is that the new “economic royalists” get no power to rule. In fact, most don’t want it. Yet they are ruled over by government, typically without their consent, to a degree far beyond what is known by ordinary citizens.
Who Owes Whom?
Perhaps the poor really will inherit the Earth. I do not know. But in the meantime, I think it is fair — and no one is openly opposed to fairness, are they? — that we take up the question of who owes whom, and what do they owe. Rather than letting ourselves, consistently, be drawn into conversations about what the “rich” owe, what if we started asking the opposite question: What do the poor owe? For generations now, many Americans have survived off of the wealth and products produced by others. They enjoy the food others produce, they live in houses others build, and they enjoy medicines others invent and manufacture. Fine. No one is asking them to give back what was given to them. But how will they repay their debt? What is their plan to create some modicum of wealth so that they can give to the rich, should the rich every become poor? How would a political talk show host at MSNBC or CNN or any other garden-variety media outlet answer that question?
Perhaps another way to approach this problem is with this simple turn of rhetoric: When it is asserted that everyone has a right to a house, or job, or health insurance, or any other economic good, let us agree. Yes, they do. Very well. Then let us turn with one simple question in return:
Who, exactly, has the obligation to produce and provide those things?