Are We Really a Nation of Takers? Part 2

If we are really a nation of takers, then it is important to determine who exactly the takers are. To do so, we should first define what it means “to take.” Most simply, it means to acquire or to carry, as in to take a pill for one’s high blood pressure or to take along an umbrella on a rainy day. It can also be used in the sense of to take a break or a vacation or a flight to Los Angeles. These are what one might call positive meanings of the verb. There are also legal meanings, as in the taking of private property for social or communal purposes, including zoning laws that forbid owners of private property from certain uses of their property. These involve the attempt to balance private vs. public goods.

In the current climate of political argument, however, taking is a negative and refers to a form of theft, whereby the well off have their wealth taken by the government, primarily through taxation, to be given to the less well off or disadvantaged. It is this sense that is meant when conservatives say that we have become a nation of takers. In their view, the “rich,” however defined (i.e., wherever the line between rich and poor is drawn), are expected to share their legitimately earned wealth, at the point of an IRS accountant’s pencil, with those who have not earned any wealth.

But the definition of “takers” in this context is not so simple as that. There is a history to this sense, a context, which is not often admitted but which can be seen in the rhetoric: there are takers and there are makers, there are producers and there are looters and moochers, there are creators and there are parasites; there are individuals and there are the masses, there are leaders and there are mere followers. Anyone who has read, or perhaps merely heard of, Atlas Shrugged or The Fountainhead, or has seen the movie of the latter starring Cary Grant, can recognize the dichotomies of Ayn Rand. The rhetoric of the takers-and-makers critics of today is the rhetoric of Randism, a pseudo-philosophy which has permeated the ranks of the political right wing to a far greater extent than most people realize. The ludicrousness of the plot of Atlas Shrugged is equaled only by the turgidity of its prose, yet it and Rand’s other books nonetheless have inspired not only the current generation of right-wing ideologues such as Paul Ryan but a previous generation, as exemplified in Alan Greenspan, who was both a fan and a friend of Rand. It is “A Weltanschauung which repudiates the democratic principle of the rule of the masses and aims at giving this world to the best people”; although this was said by Adolf Hitler in Mein Kampf some ten years before Rand published her first novel, it nicely sums up her philosophy.

Today it is the brainy eminences of Wall Street who truly believe that they are “the best people” and that therefore this world should be given to them, no questions asked (by such pesky manifestations of the corrupt parasitism of the masses as the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau). Never mind that the best people plunged the world economy into the worst recession since the Great Depression by their brainy financial “instruments,” such as the packaging of so-called “toxic” mortgages into supposedly AAA-rated investments, which they then sold to retirement funds and municipal governments. The results of which the masses are all too familiar with.

The depredations of the best people are not limited to the collapse of the financial system. Not long ago, HSBC, one of those banks too big to fail, was fined $1.9 billion for laundering the proceeds of Mexican drug cartels, a practice HSBC had been engaging in for some time; it also was caught doing business with Iran, Burma, Libya (while still under Qaddafi) and the Sudan. Then there is the LIBOR scandal, in which banks manipulated interest rates to their own benefit (and guess to whose deficit). These and other no less appalling grabs at everyone else’s money do not inspire confidence in the self-nominated “makers” of society.

In fairness to Rand, it should be noted that her heroes can be seen as real makers, i.e., manufacturers and architects, and so perhaps it is an irony which she could not foresee that financiers, people who deal only in money and stocks, loans and funds, would someday take the mantle of makers for themselves, perhaps deliberately to disguise their quest to take from everyone else.

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