Part Four (Parts 1-3 are available at the Progress Report Archive)
The real problem is not to win arguments but to effect change, and at this point the obstacles seem well nigh insuperable. The foremost obstacle, as Senator Fred Harris of Oklahoma has observed, is that a symbiosis has developed between big wealthowners and politicians that is even more insidious than the spoils system of the 19th century.
In the old days, the quid pro quo for someone who worked for a successful candidate was a job on the government payroll. That, at least, was a system that rewarded labor. Nowadays the system works almost entirely on behalf of wealth. Owners of wealth contribute to political campaigns -- oftentimes to opposing candidates -- and receive in return subsidies, tax breaks and protection against reform.
Since the economic system, by itself, will not distribute wealth more equitably, a political shove is needed; but since political power is so intimately an outgrowth of economic power, the vicious circle is seemingly unbreakable. Perhaps this is what Marxists have in mind when they insist that equitable distribution is impossible as long as the means of production are privately owned.
Yet it is too early to give up hope. Campaign financing reform could, conceivably, weaken the spoils system of wealth, as civil service reform put an end to the spoils system of labor. Movements to distribute wealth have achieved some modest victories in the past, and can provide some inspiration for the future: the Homestead Act of 1862, coming after half a century of agitation, was a wealth distribution measure, as were the 16th Amendment, authorizing a federal income tax, and the wartime excess profits taxes.
And it is worth considering that, four years from now, the American republic will celebrate its 200th year of independence, not just from George III, but from the feudal system of inherited privilege. It might be well to ponder at that time whether we have not, during those two centuries of independence, created a new kind of feudalism. Do we have an aristocracy of wealth, and a permanent underclass of poverty? Must the distribution of wealth be accepted as an unalterable given? Can it not be put to a political test? These are questions that ought to be debated between now and 1976.
The way in which a society shares the fruits of its land and resources is the most fundamental of all determinations that it must make, and especially is this so in a democracy. Perhaps some day Americans will recognize what we have become -- an interdependent and extraordinarily productive society marred by rigid and needless inequality -- and agree on what we can become -- a democracy that produces and shares what it produces.
This essay was part of a series written by Peter Barnes for The New Republic magazine in 1971-72. We think you'll be pleased -- and perhaps shocked -- to see
how timely and insightful the essays are for today. Each essay has been republished, in installments, by The Progress Report.
Back to The Progress Report