Leftists frequently couch their position in terms of the “powerful” exploiting the “weak”. This expresses an essentially moral argument for left-of-center policies. The conservative then responds that such “moral exhibitionism” – to use George Will’s phrase – is so much “fuzzy headed sentimentality”. The “haves” “earned” their wealth, and established their “self-sufficiency”. They are entitled to the benefit of their hard-won position. As for the “weak”, their weakness is their own fault.
We could continue to go around in this manner – essentially exchanging sanctimonious rhetoric. I prefer a different approach.
Why don’t we delegitimize the conservative position with a little basic economics. That’s what they use on us. It turns out, objective economic arguments work better for us. Consider the whole notion of who is “strong” and who is “weak”. Beware, George Will. You’re not going to like this. Not at all.
Let’s consider George Will as our example of a “self-sufficient” “successful” member of the middle class. Let’s start by asking a simple question. What exactly does he do for a living?
He writes newspaper columns.
Based on comments he’s made here and there in his newspaper columns, I gather that he lives in a suburban house, drives a car, and has a house full of the various products of our industrial society. Presumably, he has the same problems anybody does. His toilet stops up. His car breaks down. Now imagine him bartering with his mechanic. “I’ll trade you a newspaper column for replacing my head gasket.” I doubt his mechanic would consider 200 years worth of newspaper columns worth one head gasket replacement.
Take a look around you. What do you see? Now go outside and look around. You see all kinds of things, starting with your computer monitor, the desk or table it sits on, the chair your butt is parked in, the room all of this sits in, the building that room is a part of, the automobiles parked at or near the building you’re sitting in. All of these things were made by somebody. In the case of your house, there is a wealth of skills that went into its construction. Do you have a hipped roof? Do you know how that was done? There are a relatively small number of people who know how to build something as simple as the roof on your house.
Think about the services you can’t do without? If George Will goes on strike, don’t worry. There are any number of other blowhards ready to take his place. I mean, is a cadre of people who spout “opinions” for a living really essential. I can hear all the opinions I want at the barber shop – free. On the other hand, let the garbage collectors go out on strike. They do this in New York from time to time. People in New York find out in a hurry the value of having someone pick up your trash for you.
What is most instructive is the reaction of people to striking garbage collectors. Many resent those garbage collectors. They say it is “irresponsible” of them to strike. They grumble that they are already “overpaid”. Apparently, they believe that some people have some sort of an obligation to do disagreeable work – cheap. Garbage collectors obviously disagree. They figure that they’re providing a service you frequently take for granted – a service you’re not willing to do for yourself.
Now who is “strong” and who is “weak”. Is the strong man the one who is afraid to put his hands in somebody else’s garbage. Or is it the man who is willing to do it. Is the strong man the one who chooses not to put his hands in someone else’s garbage, because he has a choice in the matter. Or is it the man, faced with the need to make a living who does what he has to do. Is the strong man the one who has piles of pretty chits of paper he can trade for valuable services, or is it the man who has to trade something useful for what he needs.
Perhaps you are tempted to believe that the man who has the chits of paper is the “strong” man. Perhaps you buy into his rhetoric about his “self-sufficiency”. Such men who have accumulated stacks of paper with pretty writing on them, frequently pat themselves on the back for their "industry” and “hardwork” in “taking care of themselves”. Let’s explore that just a little. Let’s return to George Will.
Since the man who fixes his blown head gasket isn’t interested in newspaper columns as payment, Mr. Will requires a whole complex of arrangements to turn his musings into something with more immediate value. While the mechanic might not buy Mr. Will’s column alone, he may well be interested in a whole collection of news stories, sports scores, stock quotes, television schedules, and a selection of opinions from a variety of different blowhards. We call them newspapers, and they are still quite popular. George Will’s column isn’t even a tenth of a percent of the total content of the Washington Post. In other words, of the fifty cents the mechanic pays for his newspaper, he would have to file some copper off the edge of a penny to pay for George Will’s part of the paper. Of course, his fifty cents doesn’t pay for the paper. It mostly covers the distribution costs. The paper is paid for by advertisers.
Let’s take a look at all of the things that make George Will possible. Machinery has to exist to produce newspapers in bulk. Trucks are necessary to transport those newspapers. Dozens – and maybe hundreds – of other writers, reporters, editors aand of course other blowhards are necessary to produce the content. Somebody has to pay for all of this activity, and the public isn’t willing to pay five dollars a day for a newspaper. So there has to be an entire commercial infrastructure with sufficient revenue to pay for newspaper advertising. Since Mr. Will is syndicated – allowing him to go from being a local blowhard making peanuts to a national blowhard making decent money – there has to be a communications infrrastructure to allow transmission of his musings to papers in Texas and California. Remember the filings off the mechanic’s penny. Multiply that by tens of millions of people buying newspapers all over the country, and it adds up to a nice living.
That nice living is nothing more than chits of paper. Mr. Will gets pictures of dead people – which his mechanic will take, interestingly enough. But why? And how many pretty pictures does the mechanic want. You see, George Will’s nice living for rendering opinions depends on another complex of social arrangements, like the Federal Reserve system which regulates the volume of those pictures of dead people. He no doubt has “investments”. That is what we call it when he exchanges pictures of dead people for other chits of paper called “stocks”, “bonds”, “deeds” to “real estate”. He probably owns some “stock”. This gives him an assortment of “rights” to things like “dividends” – which are more pictures of dead people. In fact, his “stock” is in something called a “corporation” – which itself is nothing but a piece off paper called a “corporate charter” issued by some state government bureaucrat. This “stock” in fact gives Mr. Will a claim to what is produced by hundreds, thousands or even tens of thousands of people working to organize and produce a product. Without those people doing that work, Mr. Will’s “fortune”, such as it is, will be worthless.
Just who is dependent on who? There are a good hundred thousand people I have just identified that make George Will’s very existence possible. Where does he get off claiming that he is “self-sufficient”. He is the least “self-sufficient” person I can think of. You want proof? Conservatives like him are the leading voices condemning the garbage collector for going on strike. Conservatives like him complain the loudest at how expensive it is to replace a head gasket, or fix a broken toilet. He is the one who fears organized labor like the devil fears holy water. He understands something, even if you don’t. The garbage man won’t pick up your trash if he doesn’t “have” to. If George Will – or you for that matter – want other choices in life, somebody has to be deprived of a choice. In fact, your choices in life, your vocation – if it isn’t doing something tangibly useful – depends on a web of social arrangements that give you the benefit of labor by other people that is frankly more useful.
The dependent people aren’t the working people. The dependent people are the elites, the “owners”, the “professionals”, and the whole segment of society whose “strength” derives from possession of symbolic chits of paper, and a social framework that gives value to those chits of paper. In fact, the really dependent people are extremely weak. They aren’t willing to get their hands dirty. They’ve spent their lives sitting on their ass, enjoying goods and services produced by the intelligence, skill and sweat of other people. They’ve “worked hard” playing a social game. They’ve never done a single day’s work doing the actual production that social game is set up to organize. They tell themselves they are “strong” and “self-sufficient” because the social game they play tells them they are. But every one of them harbors at least a suspicion that maybe all of that is a lie. Every one of them is confronted – when their garbage is piling up on the street – with a stark demonstration that you need working men and women more than they need you.
You say the working man needs you, Mr. Will? For what? Prove it. That’s the whole point. That’s what people on the left need to get clear about. We are not for justice for the “weak”. We are for justice for the backbone of society We assert not the weakness of the garbage man, the hotel maid, the textile worker or the coal miner. We assert his strength. We assert her strength. We assert that these strong men and women who know how to do something useful, and who are willing to do it, are the foundation on which everything else depends. If you are one of the people who depend on the strong back of labor, labor has a right – a right they’re willing to fight for – to ask what they are getting for their trouble. The man on the back of that garbage truck knows what he’s doing for you, Mr. Will. He has a right to ask what you’re doing for him. He has a right to demand a decent living for his hard work. He has a right to expect a wage sufficient to make his time on the back of that truck temporary – not his permanent station in life. He isn’t asking you for it Mr. Will. He’s demanding it.
You say you don’t “consent” to give it to him?
No problem. Take your own fucking garbage to the dump.