Let’s quickly dispose of one issue. From the standpoint of a just and moral legal system, all lives matter. Everyone has inalienable rights and it is one of government’s legitimate function to protect those rights. Consider that issue settled and by unanimous voice vote the motion carries: “All Lives Matter” belongs on bumper stickers, T-shirts, and all the other media that display the stream of high-sounding bromides with which we are endlessly bombarded.
Beyond the propositions of the universality of rights and their protection by proper government, many lives don’t matter at all. One of the more revolutionary, but least appreciated, aspects of the American Revolution was that it moved towards a society where the notion of merit was based not on status, but achievement. To quickly dispose of two other issues, “towards a society” implies that this state of affairs was imperfectly realized at that time. Obviously, the Constitution tolerated slavery, the disenfranchisement of women, and the marginalization of Native Americans. It is also duly noted that the United States has never fully realized the achievement-based notion of merit.
However, achievement quickly became the marker in America, much more so than it had ever been in Europe. There, one’s status was mostly a matter of heredity, The wealth of those at the highest rungs, be it in government, the churches, or universities was either donated or taken (hence Balzac’s observation: “Behind every great fortune there is a crime”). Those who actually made the donated or stolen wealth were considered a lower caste.
From early days in America, entrepreneurs made fortunes through production and trade that even Europeans recognized as substantial. There were inherited fortunes, but status was not something one was born into or gained by virtue of privilege, rather it was achieved. The ethos was evident in the expressions that have gained currency: “make something of yourself,” self-made man,” “make a fortune” “go-getter.” The good things in life were not bestowed by outside agency, they were acquired through one’s own efforts. Not everyone would get rich, but the belief was that anyone who did not take responsibility for his life, who was unwilling to work and achieve, even among those born into wealth, was of no account.
In other words, it was up to each individual to make his or her own life “matter.” Was life fair? No more than it is now, but unfairness was an excuse, not a reason for failure. If you failed, you got back up and tried again. By the time you met your maker, you were supposed to be able to point to positive things you had done with your life—competence in your job, a well run business, the family you left behind, your contributions to your church and community—evidence that your life had mattered. It mattered because of what you had done for yourself and for the people who were important to you.
Positive accomplishment as a requirement for mattering in other people’s eyes, and most importantly your own—self-esteem rubs people with little or no accomplishments the wrong way. That group encompasses far more than just the drunk in the gutter or the beggar on the street. Any amateur psychologist can ascribe the nihilism exhibited by rampaging rioters to a lack of any positive accomplishment, and consequently a lack of any sense of self-worth, on the part of the rioters. The more interesting questions are how the rioters reached such a pitiable inner state, and is that inner state any different from that found among the legions in government, academia, foundations and other institutions who claim it is their mission to elevate the downtrodden?
Part of the rationale for New Deal jobs programs was that unlike a straight dole, it would preserve the self-respect of recipients, who would be doing something useful. Though some of the work may indeed have been useful, there is a fundamental difference between a private employer voluntary hiring a worker because the work done will be worth more to the employer than the wage paid, and a job bestowed by a government with no regard for its economic merit and funded by the involuntarily exacted taxes. You can fool some of the workers some of the time, but not all of them all the time; some of the new government employees understood the distinction. However, the New Deal was, in the US, the genesis of the idea that accomplishment and self-worth could be bestowed by the government
The acceptance of this idea was more important to those doing the bestowing than their putative beneficiaries. The beneficiaries had to blur in their minds the distinction between a job obtained as a voluntary exchange and a job obtained through the coercive ministrations of government, but fine distinctions don’t count for much if you’re destitute and hungry. The people on the other side of the coercive transaction, literally (or figuratively in the case of those providing intellectual support for the exercise), had to obliterate in their own minds the difference between voluntary charity and redistributing stolen property.
Altruism of the religious bent, which had powered much of the explosion of philanthropy in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, set a bar: the giver had to give up something of his or her own. New Dealer redistributionists sneered at such efforts. The new and improved variation: force someone else to fund your programs, in the name of high-sounding ideals of uplift. While perhaps the beneficiaries could be excused for mental blurring, it was apparent from the beginning that their nominal benefactors (the real benefactors were the taxpayers) had ulterior and venal motives.
Obviously there was political power and riches to be gained in this sham. Vote buying of one stripe or another has become nonpartisan de rigueur for advancement in today’s politics, and Washington is now the nation’s wealthiest metropolitan area. More subtly, coerced redistribution has provided a fig leaf of not just morality, but positive accomplishment. A twenty-first century resumé can list Ivy League degrees, positions in Washington and Wall Street, perhaps a stint “giving back” in academia, the media, or foundations, numerous honors, and at the end, a funeral well-attended by luminaries. Yet, for many of these souls journeying to whatever the afterlife holds for them, there’s an essential emptiness.
Trading on one’s connections, image management, apple polishing, power politics, and other tawdry means of advancement are not positive accomplishments, like say, growing a garden or a business. They are negative, corrupting and destroying in ways that may be even more insidious than a descent into alcoholism, indolence, or depravity. No proclamation of one’s commitment to the downtrodden, manifested by one’s commitment to coerced redistribution, can reverse or ameliorate this fundamental corruption. The penance itself is corrupt.
So it wasn’t just the nihilism of the rioters that was on display in Baltimore. It was the nihilism of a philosophy that holds that citizens must look to the government, not their own efforts, for their lives to matter, and the nihilism of those who manipulate this creed for their own ends. After 80 years it is clear that wealth can be stolen and redistributed, but that the sources of wealth—initiative, hard work, innovation, productivity, and competitive acumen—cannot. Pretending that they can destroys the souls of both thieves and recipients, and has turned governance into at best, farce, but mostly tragedy: the mindless destruction of Baltimore and America’s other dying cities, and a dying economy. The governing elites, who never tire of congratulating themselves for their “compassion,” have done nothing but pave a road to hell for the victims of their compassion.
LIVES THAT MATTERED, A NOVEL THAT MATTERS