In 1952 during my high-junior or low-senior semester at U.C., Berkeley, a few of us were sitting in our residence association lounge one evening when two or three young fellows not of our group, visiting maybe from “fraternity row,” pulled the conversation around to one guy’s argument favoring the morality of accumulated, family wealth. He likened each person’s quest for income and property as a footrace for scarce goods. Each owns righteously, forever after, whatever he wins. Next, he claimed, each winner has an inalienable right to pass as much of whatever of his winnings he pleases on to his bona-fide heirs or whomsoever else he chooses. “Isn’t that so?”–he asked.
I relit my pretty, Sunburst pipe (less expensive than a Comoy,) and softly replied, “It’s not that simple.” You should have seen the expression come over his face, of frustration, disbelief and restrained anger. He and his friends left soon. The rest of us went to our rooms to study. He should have known better than to look for converts in a campus residence association. We were common folks, lucky to be at university at all. We had some dim sense of the politics currently raging around inheritance law, what taxes were about and how intensely the uppercrust wanted to be free of them. The perennial issues still are, what rates are fair and what offsets should be allowed.
Things haven’t changed. The most comfortable folks in the highest income levels cannot change. Only occasional offspring escape that closed circuitry. The rich tend to become psychologically “encrusted” with rationalizations that conceal their awareness of guilt, real or in the eyes of others. They ignore much of the world around them and shield themselves, living in denial, often flaunting conspicuously their great riches and high consumption. It only works to increase the distance between them and the general population of folks who never saw life as a race to the top of the heap, but only as something to continue for the sake of satisfactions found in other areas of living than of mere ownership or getting ahead of Smith and Jones.
What is the result of unrestrained, unmitigated urge to own and gain more property and power over others? Carelessness about means. Aggressive destruction of barriers and opposition. Resource rape. Inhuman exploitation of whole populations. Escalating rationalization and denial. Mounting distance between elites and masses. Rising alienation, anomie and a counterbalancing movement toward social solidarity against oppression, culminating in total breakdown in strikes of several kinds, ending perhaps in violent revolution. Wealthy power-elites which have not learned self-understanding and the lessons of human nature from history are doomed to find them grievously reenacted upon themselves.