Is the American “capitalistic” system fair and functioning well? What makes a society good and economically just? Does America show satisfactory respect for the dignity of its citizens based on the economic system is created? Have things gotten worse since the COVID-19 pandemic? Whether wealth and income inequality are fair and morally justifiable hinges on what one believes about the nature of the socio-economic system in question. The 18th century theorists of great renown, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Adam Smith both have opinions relevant American-style capitalism, economic justice, and rights/fairness. In the end, I do not believe either would see a justification for the “capitalistic” system America has created.
Rousseau approaches ideas such as inequality and societal design in an aspirational and high-level/political sense, fairly directly (especially when he references the nature of individuals in a pre-social state, and in an actual society, as well as property rights, and governance). Smith, in his voluminous The Wealth of Nations, sketches broadly but also in plenty of minute detail about how the economic relationships in a society can best function. These estimable writers have interesting and somewhat different takes on how a society ought to accord rights, privileges, goods, and wealth-making opportunities. Principles of justice and morality are thus referenced or implicated in both men’s writings. Smith is not – as modern Republicans would have us believe – the poster boy for the John Birch Society, or the Cato Institute; in my opinion modern rentiers (lazy capitalists) and overpaid corporate executives benefit from a capitalistic society run amok – one that neither Rousseau nor Smith would endorse were they alive today. None of this would be possible without a system of what is tantamount to legalized bribery of political officials.
A good and just community or society (in other words, in my opinion, a functional one, an admirable one, a decent one) accords honors, privileges, benefits, and goods based not just on the merit, behavior, or moral goodness of its individual members, but fundamentally by virtue of the fact that citizens are human beings and make up the backbone of any society. Ideally, no citizen of a well-functioning economic/political system is shortchanged, and no one is the beneficiary of unfair privilege and self-indulgence. By the same token, no decent person willing to work full-time is relegated to the position of slave or beggar or indentured servant. This is of great importance, since in his book Capital, modern French author Thomas Piketty points out that social mobility (the ability for a hard-working person to move from, say, the lowest social class to that of “lower middle class”, and so on) is now greater in Europe than the United States! This is ironic and disturbing, since a) many millions of Americans are poor and seriously indebted, and b) Europe has been around for ten times as long as “the land of opportunity”.
A certain minimal level of responsibility and socially beneficial conduct by the members of a society are good in and of themselves, serve a prosocial function, and are of high utilitarian merit. The economic system comprised of citizens who display these attributes and virtues should take care of said citizens. It is morally justified that no citizen in such a society should “rest on their laurels” and merely enjoy their financial superabundance (a class into which modern rentiers have a great tendency to fall). Further, no person should earn more than 100 times the pay of the lowest paid worker; no hard-working person should live a life of permanent and abject poverty; excessive wealth accumulation (especially intergenerational wealth) should be discouraged (legally and regulatorily speaking), and so on. I believe that Rousseau would certainly agree, and that Smith would also. The “crony-capitalistic” system that describes the United States is now exhibiting wealth inequality that surpasses even that of the Gilded Age, when The Great Gatsby and robber barons were cultural phenomena[i].
In the first place, a society is “better” and more praiseworthy to the degree that morally good and positive behaviors are valued, inculcated, and displayed. Hard work, ingenuity, fair competition, cooperativeness, sympathy/pity/empathy/compassion are all virtues that are superior to greed, selfishness, unfair competition, corruption, etc. This contention is virtually self-evident and axiomatic. Famed lawyer Bryan Stevenson noted that “the opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice.” The founder of The New Republic, Herbert Croly, wrote that “unless the great majority of Americans not only have – but believe they have – a fair chance, the better American future will be compromised.” These two are referencing economic and social justice.
Secondly, this valuing of virtuous behaviors (both from a religious and a humanistic perspective) of individuals in their relations with each other serves a “prosocial” function. A community or society which encourages and manifests greater positive and morally-praiseworthy behaviors will function and progress better – much like the gears in a machine are made more functional and longer-lasting when greased or oiled properly. A “virtuous cycle” tends to be created when individuals cooperate, interact in a compassionate and helpful manner, and competition among members is limited to just and reasonable bounds. In modern America, there are food lines for the destitute and unemployed, and Jeff Bezos’s net worth 180 billion dollars. The fact that Walmart workers getting paid $10-$12 an hour for maybe 35 hours a week (shy of the level needed for certain benefits) often need government assistance to subsist, while the family who largely owns the company, the Waltons, are worth 247 billion dollars. Talk about rentiers! The income and wealth inequality in America nowadays is not that different from Charles Dickens’ London, and this has high social costs (of various types).
Positive conduct, greater virtue, and more moral decency are relevant in that healthy, happy, educated, cared-for citizens make a society function more optimally. Societies that function optimally tend to grow economically, culturally, militarily, and persist. Clearly, the greater number of citizens that are able to function without impediments such as economic injustices and unresolved grievances will equal a brighter and more progressive future for the society. Slavery, for example, is economically advantageous, despite its high moral costs, but it tends not to be as stable and viable as a system not based on practices that creative massive resentment and unintended consequences. As well, in societies like 18th century France or imperial Rome, the level of wealth inequality and public squalor made for a very unstable and volatile situation. The emperors in Rome were suspected to possess about 50% of the total wealth in the society, and of course, possessed nearly-unlimited power. We know how Rome turned out…
In Rousseau, it seems clear that persons are not taken advantage of by a ruling class, and they do not simply “look out for #1”. Unchecked individualism is obviated by the “General Will”. Indeed, the heart of his book The Social Contract, as demonstrated by the impactful opening: “Man is born free, but he is everywhere in chains”, indicates that people are free in “the state of nature”, but the society he was witnessing in the time and place of Marie Antoinette represented a wholesale degradation of humanity. I maintain that modern capitalism has run amok in America as well (and this is not nearly the case in other countries – and not just Bhutan, which prizes happiness above material wealth; New Zealand and many other largely-capitalistic social democracies have no such yawning gaps between the richest and poorest citizens).
Call it “radical egalitarianism” if you wish, but Rousseau disdains individualism run amok when he points out that when citizens contemplate an action, they ought not to merely think about themselves. Inherent in this lies the incontrovertible fact that just because every citizen has personal/individualistic needs and wants, they cannot indulge them in the civic sphere – that is where the General Will operates. Therefore, to the degree that extreme self-centered, corrupt, lazy, or antisocial views are held (and behaviors are demonstrated), a person is immoral, and therefore, undeserving of such lavishness and immoderacy. Perhaps subjecting moral decisions to the 20th century philosopher John Rawls’ “veil of ignorance” is too austere a barometer, but engaging in selfish and individualistic concerns absent any consideration of the General Will is dysfunctional for society. Such misguided individuals would therefore need to “be forced to be free.” Rousseau terms such self-love amore propre. I believe Rousseau would look upon modern America not that differently than how he perceived Paris in the mid-1700s. He envisioned a better society, and his essay on inequality and The Social Contract were highly impactful.
In Rousseau, fairness and egalitarianism are of higher merit and utility than amore propre. With a certain number of actual or perceived “free riders” – persons who wish to obtain various rights, privileges, and goods without working for them, or becoming “morally deserving” – a society malfunctions. Such an unjust state of affairs can definitely lead to cheating behaviors and immorality in observers. Fundamentally, in any modern technological/civilized society, the wealthy are either a) much more deserving and meritorious (in the moral sense), or b) they are taking advantage of the others.
Indeed, if the wealthy (and their counterparts the lawmakers) have designed and perpetuate a system whereby “might makes right”, and wealth equals power and privilege, it is not optimal. By virtue of the indictment of inequality that permeates his essay[ii], we know that Rousseau believed that the rich essentially engage in all manner of activity that are not based on moral rightness, but cunning, heredity, and machination. Earlier in life, he waited on the rich, and held them in the opposite of high regard! The Social Contract was virtually an indictment of rule by a few powerful and elite individuals – virtually the opposite of the General Will of the people.
Indeed, when those with some kind of advantage began harnessing resources such as land and low-paid (or slave) labor (like which marked feudalism) or when society reaches the opulence and wealth that characterized 18th century Paris, things become quite disconnected from what is just and right. People do not like to live in a society that they consider not just, not fair, and not right. Typically, the state was engineered and perpetuated to further the narrow interests of highly-placed individuals in such societies, and in such places and times no mind was paid to whether those in elite positions of privilege and power deserved it, in the moral sense of the word. Today, in America, this is so the case that even Adam Smith devotees decry the way his name is used by those who would seek to hold sway from the commanding heights, perpetuating and justifying such wanton economic injustice.
Indeed, scholar Deborah Boucoyannis writes: “The important point about Smith’s system is that it precluded steep inequalities…. Once we put the building blocks of his system together, concentration of wealth simply cannot emerge[iii].” She goes on to note that “Smith thought high profits denoted economic pathology. The rate of profit, he said, was ‘always highest in the countries which are going fastest to ruin.’” She even points out that, “Accordingly, when the economy is sound, wealth concentration should not occur. Only when profit-seekers have rigged the system through legislation do concentrations occur.” One need only possess glancing familiarity with the Supreme Court decision Citizens United to see that the capitalistic system enjoyed by some Americans (and endured by most) would offend Rousseau to his core, and make Adam Smith want to strangle Ayn Rand.
Smith and Rousseau, though 18th century contemporaries (who did not communicate, incidentally), had certain differences. As Pierre Force puts it, “Rousseau was seen as the most eloquent critic of modern commercial society, and Adam Smith was taken to be its most prominent advocate[iv].” Jimena Hurtado adds, “In Rousseau justice is an institutional feature, in Smith it describes the individual. In Rousseau justice is a normative ideal that must be attained through the transformation of individual and society; in Smith it emerges from the sympathetic process between individuals[v].”
Neither writer would support the modern American incarnation/interpretation of Smith’s ideas. They would consider the system that even before the pandemic led 35,000,000 Americans to be hungry (i.e., have food insecurity) to be a gross imitation and a sick mutation, I assert. Admittedly, Rousseau might not have envisioned the modern welfare state in all its sophistication – or even merely the huge population of countries such as America. However, he saw inequality as having a fundamental basis in both human nature and in the way civilization had evolved for the last seven- or eight thousand years. He lamented what had become of humanity even 250 years ago. “Pity” (an empathy-like emotional sense) was a prime contributor to the very egalitarian system he envisioned for society. Smith also saw morality as fundamental, largely based on sympathy and good faith, and would not see the gross disparities, economic manipulation, and systemic corruption that marks modern America as either moral or economically functional and just. Interestingly, Force again writes:
“In the 1980s, Micahel Ignatieff and Istvan Hont published several pieces which argued that Smith took Rousseau’s positions seriously and shared many of his concerns about the rise of modern commercial society. According to Ignatieff, ‘Smith’s…deep concern, for example, with the issue of standing armies, and his unconcealed preference for government by the independent landed class in preference to the ascendant commercial interests make it clear how deeply he shared Rousseau’s anxieties, if not his solutions.”
There might be a temptation to wish to “go back to a simpler time”, but that is not my prescription – and it was, incidentally, not Rousseau’s either. “Therefore, we must take care not to confuse savage man with the men we have before our eyes,” he writes. Likening humankind to a housecat that has lost its vigor and strength and natural state, in the Discourse he writes: “It is the same for man himself. In becoming habituated to the ways of society and a slave, he becomes weak, fearful, and servile….” (p. 51). Indeed, “the extreme inequality in our lifestyle; excessive idleness among some, excessive labor among others; the overly refined foods of the wealthy…the bad food of the poor, who most of the time do not have even that” are examples he cites. He ends the paragraph on p. 50 with: “When one thinks about the stout constitutions of the savages, at least those whom we have not ruined with our strong liquors; when one becomes aware of the fact that they know almost no illnesses but wounds and old age, one is strongly inclined to believe that someone could easily write the history of human maladies by following the history of civil societies.” Rousseau laments the society he witnessed in the major cities of Europe, but he did not believe it would be possible to go backward. His forward-looking and fairly novel solution was laid out in The Social Contract.
Dennis C. Rasmussen sheds this light on the Rousseau-Smith interaction[vi]:
“Smith was deeply engaged with the problems articulated by Rousseau and that he struggled with them in his later writings: he, too, acknowledged that the division of labor produces great inequalities and can exact an immense cost in human dignity by rendering people feeble and ignorant; that people’s great concern about the opinions of others can lead to problems such as ostentation and moral corruption; and that people tend to submit themselves to nearly endless toil and anxiety in the pursuit of ‘trinkets and baubles,’ which in the end provide at best only fleeting satisfaction. The fact that Smith agrees with so many aspects of Rousseau’s critique of commercial society helps highlight the fundamental puzzle of his thought: Why did he defend commercial society despite his full awareness of the problems associated with it?”
Both theorists were very different and in some ways, seemingly incompatible. However, one thing is true, I believe: neither would sanction modern American capitalism. It is a perversion of Adam Smith’s formative ideas from the 18th century – more akin to “crony capitalism” and oligarchy and corruptedness than “laissez-faire capitalism”. And further, Smith never used the words capitalism or laissez-faire in his voluminous The Wealth of Nations! The point is that the American system of economic and social justice is wildly unfair, unjust, and stacked in favor of the wealthy and powerful. This is not right and it is not justifiable when modern economic libertarians invoke the name of Smith as a credibility builder. It is not possible to go back to “man in the state of nature” (and nor would we want to), but there is certainly change here and now that could take better account of Rousseau’s aspirations and Smith’s actual intentions.
Some quotes about economic justice follow:
“Americans have never been too comfortable with the idea of nobility, anyway. We want to believe in equal opportunity. We want to believe in meritocracy. We want to believe that anyone who works hard will be rewarded, and anyone with wealth earned it and deserves to keep it.” (Amy Julia Becker)
“What would Adam Smith do if he’d lived long enough to see the crazy world he helped think into existence? Specifically, how long would the father of economics marvel at all the wealth and prosperity free markets brought to many corners of the globe before wishing to punch in the face those who continue to use his words to justify so much greed and depravity?” (Jeremy Olshan in “What would Adam Smith think of today’s economic pundits?”)
“…the most representative story [of the last decade may be] that of the former graduate student who ended up as a warehouse janitor. Or of the thousands of people who have gone online to beg for money to help them stay afloat through a life-threatening illness. These kinds of stories felt most real and urgent and indelible to me this past decade, a decade without a single month of recession, when the United States grew to its wealthiest point ever—and when the middle class shrank, longevity fell, and it became clear that a whole generation was falling behind. The central economic dynamic of the 2010s was that no matter how well the market was doing, no matter how long the expansion lasted, no matter how much the economy grew, families still struggled. It was a decade that strained America’s idea of what economic growth could do, and should do, because it did so little for so many.” (Annie Lowrey in The Atlantic)
“When they turn the pages of history/
When these days have passed long ago/
Will they think of us with sadness/
For the seeds that we let grow?” (Neil Peart, in “A Farewell to Kings”)
“How sweet it would be to live among us, if our appearances were always like the heart’s dispositions, if decency were virtue, if our maxims served as our rules, if true philosophy were inseparable from the title of philosopher!” (Rousseau in Discourse)
“Justice…is the main pillar that upholds the whole edifice. If it is removed, the great, the immense fabric of human society…must in a moment crumble into atoms… [because] a man would enter an assembly of men as he enters a den of lions.” (Adam Smith in The Theory of Moral Sentiments)
“In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith offers a guide to personal happiness. Pursue prudence, benevolence, and justice, ground these in self-command, and you will live a happy and virtuous life.” (Cecil Bohanon and Michelle Vachris in Pride and Profit: the Intersection of Jane Austen and Adam Smith)
“For Rousseau, justice is associated with the general will. The social contract expresses the will of each individual as a citizen, and establishes equality between them recognizing their equal dignity and freedom. Justice then is a positive act from the general will expressing how each one gives herself to all and receives all in herself. But commercial society is not the society of the social contract. It is the result of an unjust pact that creates and maintains artificial inequality based on wealth, making it inherently unjust. For Smith, the rules of justice are the consequence of a bottom-up process where private individuals enter into a sympathetic communication that leads them to disapprove, and thus to punish breach of life, property and contract. Justice is prior to civil government, and originates from our natural tendency to sympathize and to go along with the resentment the victim of a positive harm to her life, property or contract feels. The generalization of such sympathy leads to rules of justice that become the back bone of civil society. Justice then is, so to speak, the natural result of human tendencies and interactions, just as commercial society.” (Jimena Hurtado, “On the Possibility of Justice in Commercial Society According to Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Adam Smith”)
“More often than we realize, the question of moral desert lurks just below the surface of disputes about the just distribution of opportunities, honors, and rewards.” (Michael J. Sandel in What Money Can’t Buy, the Moral Limits of Markets)
“…two principles that are prior to reason, of which one makes us ardently interested in our well-being and our self-preservation, and the other inspires in us a natural repugnance to seeing any sentient being, especially our fellowman, perish or suffer.” (Rousseau in Discourse)
“Many a scholar has made a career, in recent decades, by pointing out that this view of Smith is a gross caricature. It has often been noted, for instance, that Smith never once used the term “laissez-faire” or even the term “capitalism,” and that his two books—The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) and The Wealth of Nations (1776)—are full of passages lamenting the potential moral, social, and political ills of what he called ‘commercial society.’ It is also indisputable that the alleviation of poverty was one of Smith’s central concerns, the common caricature notwithstanding. Even a cursory reading of The Wealth of Nations should make this point abundantly clear.” (Dennis C. Rasmussen in “The problem of inequality according to Adam Smith”)
“Modern bourgeois society with its relations of production, of exchange and of property, a society that has conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange, is like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world which he has called up by his spells.” (Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels in The Communist Manifesto)
“I believe that, as a principle, if there is a very big gap in the economic conditions of people who share a budget and there is an economic downturn, there is a high risk of bad conflict. Disparity in wealth, especially when accompanied by disparity in values, leads to increasing conflict and, in the government, that manifests itself in the form of populism of the left and populism of the right and often in revolutions of one sort or another. For that reason, I am worried what the next economic downturn will be like, especially as central banks have limited ability to reverse it and we have so much political polarity and populism.” (Ray Dalio in Principles)
“I think there’s something wrong with the inequalities of wealth in the world; there’s something wrong with the great suffering of other countries compared to our relatively prosperous and happy societies, and all for the good that utilitarianism can give us some moral basis for advancing those worthy moral causes.” (Colin McGinn)
“…moral or political inequality, because it depends on a kind of convention and is established, or at least authorized, by the consent of men. This later type of inequality consists in the different privileges enjoyed by some at the expense of others, such as being richer, more honored, more powerful than they, or even causing themselves to be obeyed by them.” And “…whether those who command are necessarily better than those who obey, and whether strength of body or mind, wisdom or virtue, are always found in the same individuals in proportion to power or wealth.” (Rousseau in Discourse)
“As long as some specialized class is in a position of authority, it is going to set policy in the special interests it serves. But the conditions of survival, let alone justice, require rational social planning in the interest of the community as a whole – and by now that means the global community.” (Noam Chomsky)
“Servants, labourers, and workmen of different kinds make up the far greater part of every great political society. But what improves the circumstances of the greater part can never be regarded as an inconveniency to the whole. No society can surely be flourishing and happy of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable. It is but equity, besides, that they who feed, clothe, and lodge the whole body of the people, should have such a share of the produce of their own labour as to be themselves tolerably well fed, clothed, and lodged.” (Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations)
“Extreme concentration of income is incompatible with real democracy. Can anyone seriously deny that our political system is being warped by the influence of big money, and that the warping is getting worse as the wealth of a few grows ever larger?” (Paul Krugman in New York Times)
“We hear politicians say all the time that we have the best health-care system in the world; we have fabulous doctors and health-care facilities, but they’re off-limits to a lot of people because of the cost.” (Wendell Potter in Nation on the Take)
“The larger welfare states have achieved lower income inequality, lower gender inequality, lower poverty rates, and longer life, again without any clear loss in GDP. Nor do they suffer any other often-imagined side effects. These states, particularly in Northern Europe, have some of the world’s cleanest and least corruption governments, with lower budget deficits than the United States, Japan, and other rich countries. And, for what it is worth, their populations express greater happiness in international surveys of public opinion.” (Peter H. Lindert)
“In 2009, during the depths of the Recession, the seven highest-paid hedge fund managers were taking in more than a billion dollars each. Remember, government sets the rules by which the market functions. We deregulated Wall Street, allowing it to engage in more and more excessive behavior.” (Robert S. Reich)
“Wages should rise with increased wealth. On this basis, Smith defends adequate labor wages, which had to be at least sufficient to provide the ‘necessaries,’ covering lodging, food, clothes, the latter tailored to middle-class comforts. The baseline appears minimal, yet it provides for more than is covered by the contemporary minimum wage.” (Deborah Boucoyannis)
“Richard Hofstadter observed about American capitalism, ‘Once great men created fortunes; today a great system creates fortunate men.’ This was what F. Scott Fitzgerald saw in the 1920s: dead, inherited wealth next to dynamic new money. He saw the former as aristocratic, with only the facade of knowledge and virtue, while the latter was entirely uninterested in wisdom and seduced by wealth.” (Sean McElwee[i])
“To me, what socialism means is to guarantee a basic level of dignity. It’s asserting the value of saying that the America we want and the America that we are proud of is one in which all children can access a dignified education. It’s one in which no person is too poor to have the medicines they need to live.” (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez)
“Smith saw this distortion of people’s sympathies as having profound consequences: It undermines both morality and happiness. First, morality. Smith saw the widespread admiration of the rich as morally problematic because he did not believe that the rich in fact tend to be terribly admirable people. On the contrary, he portrayed the “superior stations” of society as suffused with “vice and folly,” “presumption and vanity,” “flattery and falsehood,” “proud ambition and ostentatious avidity.” In Smith’s view, the reason why the rich generally do not behave admirably is, ironically, that they are widely admired anyway (on account of their wealth). In other words, the rich are not somehow innately vicious people. Rather, their affluence puts them in a position in which they do not have to behave morally in order to earn the esteem of others, most of whom are dazzled and enchanted by their riches.” (Dennis C. Rasmussen in “The problem of inequality according to Adam Smith”)
“…no hypocrisy is too great when economic and financial elites are obliged to defend their interests—and that includes economists, who currently occupy an enviable place in the US income hierarchy.” (Thomas Piketty in Capital)
“There are many in the United States to feel that taxation by the government is tantamount to theft. These individuals believe that the individual is always primary. They support this assertion on something like an argument in the spirit of John Locke who set the entire political process from the standpoint of the individual agent. If the individual agent is viewed as primary without regard to his generic environment, then it is easy to see how ‘free riders’ will develop.” (Michael Boylan Natural Human Rights, a Theory)
“It is too difficult to think nobly when one thinks only of earning a living.” (Rousseau in Confessions)
“To attain happiness and praise, it must be augmented by virtues that aim to help others; or in Smith’s words ‘…the virtues of justice and beneficence; of which, the one restrains us from hurting, the other prompts us to promote that happiness.’” (Cecil Bohanon and Michelle Vachris in Pride and Profit: the Intersection of Jane Austen and Adam Smith)
“Milton Friedman’s most influential work, Capitalism and Freedom, first published in 1962, argues that individual freedom is the inviolate moral absolute of economic life and that it is best secured through markets that guarantee the freedom of persons of wealth to use their money and property in whatever way they consider most beneficial to their individual interest. He is famous for the extraordinary assertion that it is immoral for any individual to sacrifice personal gain for a public interest.” (David C. Korten in The Great Turning)
“Inequality itself is not morally objectionable; what is objectionable is poverty. If a person lives a long, healthy, pleasurable, and stimulating life, then how much money the Jones earn, how big their house is, and how many cars they drive, are morally irrelevant. From the point of view of morality, it is not important that everyone has the same. What is morally important is that each should have enough.” (Harry G. Frankfurt)
“My financial situation is vastly worse than that of my parents, who were 40 when I was born. They always owned houses and had new cars, never worried about seeing a doctor, benefited from solid pensions and preached that college was the secret to their success. (Their tuition in 1960s Arkansas was about $250 a semester.) There were opportunities for them that they were able to take advantage of. There was a ladder. I’m not sure that ladder exists anymore.” (Lauren Bruce)
“The extreme inequality of our ways of life, the excess of idleness among some and the excess of toil among others, the ease of stimulating and gratifying our appetites and our senses, the overelaborate foods of the rich, which inflame and overwhelm them with indigestion, the bad food of the poor, which they often go without altogether, so that they over-eat greedily when they have the opportunity; those late nights, excesses of all kinds, immoderate transports of every passion, fatigue, exhaustion of mind, the innumerable sorrows and anxieties that people in all classes suffer, and by which the human soul is constantly tormented: these are the fatal proofs that most of our ills are of our own making, and that we might have avoided nearly all of them if only we had adhered to the simple, unchanging and solitary way of life that nature ordained for us. ” (Rousseau in Discourse)
“If the right to accumulate property is not constrained by the duty of distributive justice, the gap between the haves and the have-nots will become greater and greater.” (Judith A. Boss)
“In order that a select few might live in great opulence, millions of people work hard for an entire lifetime, never completely free from financial insecurity, and at great cost to the quality of their lives. The complaint made against this social arrangement is not that the very rich have so much more than the rest of us but that their superabundance and endless accumulation comes at the expense of everyone and everything else, including our communities and our environment.” (Michael Parenti in Democracy for the Few)
“We must powder our wigs; that is why so many poor people have no bread.” (Rousseau)
“Smith’s writings contain not only one of the earliest philosophic defenses of commercial society but also—I would venture to say—the first defense that takes Rousseau’s critique into account and that attempts to respond to its concerns. Many of today’s proponents of commercial society tend to ignore or dismiss critics of this kind of society; by contrast, Smith took the most serious critic of his day extremely seriously and was himself deeply concerned about many of the problems that Rousseau identified.” (Dennis C. Rasmussen[ii])
“We are paying a high price for the inequality that is increasingly scarring our economy— lower productivity, lower efficiency, lower growth, more instability— and that the benefits of reducing this inequality, at least from the current high levels, far outweigh any costs that might be imposed. …The bottom line, though, that higher inequality is associated with lower growth – controlling for all other relevant factors – has been verified by looking at a range of countries and looking over longer periods of time.” (Joseph Stiglitz in The Price of Inequality)
“There is no finer investment for any country than putting milk into babies.” (Winston Churchill)
“The principles of social justice: Provide a way of assigning rights and duties in the basic institutions of society and they define the appropriate distribution of the benefits and burdens of social cooperation. …basic institutions affect one’s initial chances in life. Differences in these initial chances can lead to deep inequalities — inequalities that ‘cannot possibly be justified by an appeal to the notions of merit or desert’ [writes John Rawls]. (Ryan Doody)
“Wealth Concentration: Despite impressive growth in the overall economy, the bottom half of U.S. households have seen virtually no income gain. In 1970, the bottom 50 percent of U.S. wage earners averaged $16,000 a year in current dollars. By 2014 their earnings had risen to just $16,200. During the same period, the incomes of the top 1 percent grew from an average of $400,000 to $1.3 million. One-third of U.S. workers earn less than $12 an hour. And 1 out of every 7 Americans lives below the poverty line. The proposed tax cuts will further widen the already obscene gap.” (David C. Korten)
“The greatest evils and the worst of crimes is poverty; our first duty, a duty to which every other consideration should be sacrificed, is not to be poor.” (George Bernard Shaw)
“Joseph Schumpeter, who coined the phrase [“creative destruction”], feared that eventually capitalism would lead to corporatism and destroy the entrepreneur – the lifeblood of the capitalist system. One disturbing implication of Thomas Piketty’s new book, Capital, is that the American economy is slipping into a form of ‘rentier’ capitalism, in which passive income from wealth, increasingly in the form of inherited fortunes, is supplanting dynamism, hard work and innovation.” (Sean McElwee)
“When people see that self-interested, competitive people may disregard the rules to their own advantage, then the moral restraint that they have placed upon themselves is harder to bear. Why should they have to pay the price while others not only do not but also enjoy the fruits of their incontinence?” (Michael A. Boylan in Natural Human Rights, a Theory)
[ii] “Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality Among Men”
[iv] Force, Pierre. Rousseau and Smith: On Sympathy as a First Principle.
[v] “On the Possibility of Justice in Commercial Society According to Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Adam Smith” https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2799789
[vi] The Problems and Promise of a Commercial Society: Adam Smith’s Response to Rousseau. Pennsylvania State University Press. 2008