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Thursday, January 15, 2015

Hamilton's Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness

“And so this is freedom.”  Peering up at the tall buildings dotting the skyline around New York City’s enchanting Madison Square Park, it posed as much a question as a statement.  No doubt the atmosphere was exhilarating in the confines of this midtown Manhattan landmark, just up the road from Wall Street.

“Yep!” came the succinct reply.  Of note was not so much what the answer stated but how it was stated.  The smile was broad and confident.  The chest and shoulders were thrust outward with great pride, like a peacock in full bloom.  This was a recent college graduate who got a job on Wall Street, working with money.  His father had made a career at one of the big multi-national banks, one that had grown too big to fail.

“Was it your dream to work on Wall Street?  Is this what you always wanted to do?”  The questions were familiar.

“Yeah, but I intend to work here only a few years.  Then, I’ll have the money to do what I want --- get married, have kids, raise a family, buy things, travel … .”  In talking about his dreams, in essence the American Dream, the conversation remained lively, continued for some time.  The questioner permitted this indulgence, as the door had been opened.

The questions continued: “Where did you go to college?”

Union College, in upstate New York.”

Founded in 1795, Union College is one of those quaint, smallish liberal arts colleges which dot the Northeast landscape, with an old Yankee reputation for where the affluent send their children.  Many of the kids who live in the Northeast corridor, and in certain pockets on the West coast, conduct their affairs as if attending a school which costs north of $60,000 per year for four years is not a privilege but an entitlement.

It was time for an off speed pitch: “Hey, do you know that Franklin Roosevelt’s father went to that school?”

He replied: “No --- that would be news to me.  I thought I was aware of all the famous people who went to our school.”

Curiosity turned to what else this recent grad might be unaware of.  He was free, that much was true.  But did he contemplate the reality of his freedom, within this concept we call liberty?  Did he know that the pursuit of happiness had in fact pre-dated the phenomenon of Wall Street where he worked?  Did he realize that Wall Street was, and remains, man’s artificial creation?

What if there were no Wall Street?  What would he be doing then?  He had gone to Wall Street because he was incentivized to go.  Did he envision himself as a pawn, or rather --- like a sheep --- chasing money?  Hamilton had set it up this way, of course.  An astute student of the most useful “science of human nature,” Alexander Hamilton had incentivized greed, that vice so prevalent on the dark side of human nature.  The result conceived the physical greatness of the state, as in material possessions, some say at the expense of a benign creator.  The rest (including the pursuit of happiness) would fall neatly into place behind it, so the theory went.  No wonder Jefferson had objected so strenuously.

Individuals should enjoy as much opportunity and freedom from interference as is necessary to the efficient performance of their work.  The making of fortunes has been of the utmost benefit to the whole economic engine, contributing greatly to economic efficiency and productivity.  They have been overpaid, but it has been earned.  Individuals must continue to be encouraged to earn distinction by abundant opportunity and with cordial appreciation.

But individualism is threatened when forced into a common mold, as when the ultimate measure of value is the same, and is nothing but its results in cash. This subtle point does not diminish its importance.  The pressing need is to discredit a democracy of indiscriminate individualism and promote one of selected individuals obliged constantly to justify their selection, as, for example, by adhering to a broader standard, which includes the disinterested, ethical obligation that distinguishes the unselfish citizen from the mere hoarder of gold.  In truth, individuality cannot be dissociated from the pursuit of a disinterested object.

To the extent that the rule has tended to create a powerful yet limited class whose object is to hold and increase the power it has gained, should it be perpetuated?  Should individuals be permitted to outlast their own utility?  Or must individual distinction continue to be earned?  Hostility is not dependent upon the existence of advantageous discriminations for a time, but upon their persistence for too long a time.  Put another way, can economic power at least be detached in some measure from its individual creator?

Take the inheritor of a fortune, who has an opportunity thrust upon him, an economic privilege which he has not earned and for which he may be wholly incompetent.  Individual ability is rarely inherited with the money.  But by virtue of that power he is primed to exploit his fellow citizens, whose own opportunities are thereby diminished.  His position bestows upon him a further opportunity to increase his fortune without making any individual contribution to the social character of the nation.

The money which was a source of distinction to its maker becomes a source of individual demoralization to its inheritor.  His life is organized for the purpose of spending a larger income than any private individual can really need.  In time it can hardly fail to corrupt him.  As a consequence, the social bond upon which the political bond depends is loosened.  The result is class envy on one side, and class arrogance or contempt on the other, unity coming at a cost of a mixture of patronage, servility and debt.

If Union College had taught this, could the lesson be revived?

-Michael D’Angelo