Putting the country first: America’s wealthy must foot the bill

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In the days of ancient Athens, the rich of society funded public works that everyone could enjoy. And when the city-state—the polis—went to war, the government levied a wealth tax called the eisphora on the upper one third of its citizens to finance the war effort.

The way the Greeks looked at the world and their political structure was fundamentally different from the way we look at ours today. John Locke had not yet contributed to the philosophy of liberalism, and people focused less on the individual than on the collective. They lived by virtue, by what the Greeks called aréte. The Greeks emphasized the polis over all else and realized that their success as people stemmed from the success of the polis.

Such a view of the world relates to the philosophy of 20th century thinker John Rawls. In a 1985 piece called “Justice as Fairness: Political not Metaphysical,” he argues that wealth inequality should only exist in forms that allow the lowest members of society to benefit. Like the ancient Athenians, Rawls believed that people owed their success not to their own endeavors, but to the community and to the society that reared them. Rawls goes as far as to claim that no one owns the fruits of their actions—that all talents, even the talent to work hard—is fundamentally owned by the community.

So it should be in American society. Our talents and skills were not earned by any legitimate means. By chance some of us were born into towns whose schools have more resources or into families who have more money, and by chance some of us were born with skills that allow us to outperform others. Just as the quickest runners are born with great advantages over others, individuals are also born with attributes that make them better equipped to handle stress and better able to work hard. For this reason, individuals who achieve greater accomplishments than others shouldn’t view their accomplishments as wholly theirs. By good fortune, these individuals received the conditions conducive for success.

Thus the odds to receive such good fortune are not all that high in our world today. A small, vastly disproportional fraction of people own most of the wealth of society, and for the most part, they act as if they deserve this money. While many living conditions have improved over the last two centuries, our market economy has failed many times over, and millions have been denied life and liberty as a result. When U.S. citizens die of treatable diseases, the health care our country provides is not enough. When less than half of students at a high school graduate in a given year, the education our country provides is not enough. When humans suffer from poverty in a country bloated with wealth, our country has failed its citizens.

The rich of America can change this reality. America’s wealthy, like that of ancient Greece, can decide that they owe their society more than they have so far given. Instead of financing the elections of officials who deregulate the economy or giving money to the elite university that they once attended, the wealthy of America can decide to finance the rebuilding of the country’s infrastructure, support public schools in struggling areas and fund health care for all citizens. The wealthy of America can decide to invest in institutions that support the people suffering most in society. If the wealthy decide to promote this bottom rung—if they decide to give back to the country that bore them—they can make this country a far better place.

We must instill a culture in America that values the country as a public entity to the same extent that the Athenians valued the city-state. There is a sense that an individual who battles for success and wins it has rightfully earned his success, but we must challenge this way of thinking. This way of thinking may encourage competition and even innovation, but it falls short of what could be accomplished through cooperation.

If we can change the way Americans view the country and those who comprise it, and if we can convince Americans to think of themselves as a part of something bigger—especially those of greater wealth—we can build a better world.