There is an old story of a Roman, Cincinnatus, who was called upon by the Senate in an emergency. Rome’s army had been trapped in the field, leaving the city vulnerable to an attack, and the government nominated Cincinnatus as dictator, giving him 6 months of absolute power. He defeated the enemy in 16 days and immediately gave up his office to return to his farm, becoming a legend of civic virtue and restraint.
Most of us associate the word ‘dictator’ with a corrupt, power-hungry leader, and that is certainly what most Roman dictators were. But the lesson here is that the office of dictator, and later of emperor, was sullied by the corrupt men who sought and held it, not by the nature of its duties. There were some dictators of sound principles, and some emperors as well.
Last night, I watched the documentary Park Avenue, which is about the wealth gap in America and the political landscape that has made it so entrenched. I’m not especially politically aware (something I’m working on), so it was shocking to see just how bad things are. The 400 richest Americans control as much wealth as 50% of the country, 150 million people.
For a long time, I’ve thought this was just the way our system worked: campaigning was expensive, so businesses and wealthy individuals took advantage of this to offer contributions in exchange for laws that further entrenched their wealth.
What I didn’t know was that in 1971, soon-to-be Supreme Court Justice Lewis F. Powell wrote a letter to the US Chamber of Commerce, a call-to-arms to US businesses to take a more active role in shaping policy. This was in response to the sweeping political setbacks that had been experienced by corporations in the 60s and early 70s. They heeded the call, and corporate lobbying began to take on the shape it has today.
Thus, our current system of government-by-corporation was not the result of a broken system, but was directly pursued by the corporations themselves in response to a perceived threat to their power.
The result has been the shrinking of the middle class, a huge growth in the income gap, and a polarization of American society between the extremely wealthy and the extremely poor.
To be wealthy in this country is to benefit from corrupt politics and to be a part of a system that oppresses the American people. Or so we have come to believe.
Where do we stand?
Now, to relate this to you and me: where do we stand in all this, and where do we want to stand? Would we rather identify with the disadvantaged 99%, or should we strive to be in that 1% that makes all the decisions and has all the money? Or do we try to change the system altogether? Or are we looking at it all wrong?
After watching this powerful documentary, I found myself wrestling with a lot of uncomfortable truths. I’ve noticed a lot of tension in this country between demonizing wealth and aspiring to it. The Occupy movement called out the 1% while books like The 4-Hour Workweek made record sales as people dreamed of hiring their own virtual assistants and working remotely from an island beach.
I certainly do it. I tell myself I am worthy of great wealth but catch myself creating excuses to charge less for my services, even after agreeing on a price (“you weren’t feeling well, so you didn’t get a great workout,” “we ended our tutoring session 5 minutes early, so take off a quarter of the price”). Maybe you’ve experienced a similar kind of tension.
To Fix the System, You Must Master It
I think that our system IS broken, and that we need to work to create a new one that allows all people a comfortable standard of living, with time for leisure as well as self-directed, engaging work. BUT, I think we should still aspire to wealth and influence, rather than demonizing it to live righteously but poorly.
Calling money evil simply because we don’t have much is just crying sour grapes. What influence can we have begging desperately for a job, any job, and chasing our bills month after month? Attain mastery, and mold the realm of wealth to your principles.
But I wonder if that’s just buying in. There have been people who worked within extreme poverty to change the world.
I don’t think so, because I felt that same way about the art of attraction when I started studying that. I demonized those men who could go home with any woman they wanted, simply because I couldn’t. It was only after I dove into that world that I discovered how it’s not the ability to attract that’s problematic, but the way you use it. You can ruin a lot of lives by being a player, but without the ability to seduce, even the most committed marriage can become passionless.
Wealth is the same.
It’s Time to Get Back in the Pool
We are living in an age in which negative expressions of wealth are much more common than positive ones. But there are still great philanthropists in the tradition of the Rockefellars and the Carnegies who use wealth to better society. Take Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, two of the wealthiest people alive.
By staining the halls of power, simply by acting badly, the powerful and corrupt have given power itself a bad name. By pissing in the pool, they drove everyone else out. Sure they have to swim in their own rankness, but they get the whole thing to themselves. And now, they don’t even have to do that because we’ve decided never to get our hands dirty.
We’ve accepted the truth they wanted to spread: Politics and money and power itself are the realm of the corrupt. For those of us who value principles over materials, that’s enough to keep us away. We will gladly suffer the burden of poverty if it means we can be “good” people.
Most of the truly admirable people I know just want to mind their own business, like Cincinnatus on his farm. We specifically DON’T want to get our hands dirty–it’s too big a job–and the few idealistic kids who go into politics or finance get swallowed by the system. They either buy in or burn out.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. In fact, it shouldn’t be that way. What if more of us quiet farming types took it as our civic duty to change the way our world is run? What if civic virtue had any weight at all? Do you think the world would be a different place if people of principles actually OUTNUMBERED those who are in it for the personal rewards?
Perhaps I’m spouting crazy ideas, asking for the impossible. But if you are of sound moral character (and if you read this blog then you at least aspire to that) I WANT you to be wealthy, influential, and powerful. I want people like that in the wealthiest, most influential positions in society. I want people like that running the government.
Instead of shying away from power to avoid staining your good name, take courage and run headlong into it, and mark it with your principles and ideals. Power is defined by those who wield it. Let’s redefine what it means to be rich and powerful.
So, yes, I say we should aspire to wealth.
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Fight on, Brave Warriors.
Photo credit: Francisco Diez on Flickr