In 1729, after Oliver Cromwell gave most of Ireland’s land to wealthy Englishmen, leaving the Irish people disastrously impoverished, the Irish satirist Jonathan Swift offered a solution to the burden common people had become.
In “A Modest Proposal,” Swift suggested that the Irish sell their children to the wealthy overlords for food. He insists it’s a reasonable proposition and one in good taste. He wrote that an acquaintance in London had told him that a one-year-old child makes “a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome Food; whether Stewed, Roasted, Baked, or Boiled.”
In an ironic style, much like Stephen Colbert’s TV rants today, Swift argues that the English have already eaten up most of the Irish people’s vital resources; they might as well finish the job by consuming the people, too.
Is it fair to equate starving Irish peasants with the 99 percent of Americans today and the devouring English overlords with the 1 percent of Americans who have stocked their larders with more and more of the nation’s wealth, leaving less and less for the 99 percent? At first glance it might seem a bit extreme, but perhaps not.
The Occupy movement, in Bangor, Augusta, Portland, Wall Street and elsewhere has served up myriad stories of ordinary people wrung out by an economic system ruled by the wealthy and shielded from the people by politicians purchased by campaign contributions.
The Occupy movement calls for justice and redistribution of wealth. Much as I sympathize with those goals, 60 years of observing the materialistic drive of my fellow human beings leaves me with little confidence that the haves will respond to those pleas. It has always been a dog-eat-dog world; survival of the fittest. If I can manipulate the system, economically or politically to my advantage, so be it.
That’s what capitalism is all about. Ask Adam Smith, the great advocate of wealth.
Well, I did consult Adam Smith, and was surprised by some of what he had to say. In “The Wealth of Nations,” published in London the same year America declared its independence from the British monarchy, he wrote, “No society can surely be flourishing and happy of which by far the greater part of the numbers are poor and miserable.”
That doesn’t mean the wealthy should help the poor, does it? But Smith also wrote, “It is not very unreasonable that the rich should contribute to the public expense, not only in proportion to their revenue, but something more than in that proportion.”
That doesn’t sound like the Adam Smith I thought I knew. And then there’s this: “How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortunes of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it.”
In olden times, when nobility generally meant wealth, those who amassed great fortunes were expected to live by the concept of “noblesse oblige.” Translated literally it means nobility obliges. With wealth and power (generally achieved through the grace of God) came the moral obligation to act with kindliness and generosity.
The American Revolution made royalty passe, but noblesse oblige stayed alive in the new nation. The wealthy taught it to their sons in exclusive prep schools and prestigious universities. Even John D. Rockefeller, Jr. understood it.
I don’t think they teach noblesse oblige in our elite schools these days. Maybe they should. And maybe the grownup 1 percent should take a refresher course. Since the Occupy movement began, I have frequently heard the uninvolved ask, “What do these people want?” If pleas for economic justice and redistribution of wealth are hard to swallow, maybe we could start with a little noblesse oblige.
Today, that might mean the 1 percent not buying favors from Congress so they can drain off even more of the wealth. Or supporting affordable health care and more funding for education so the 99 percent aren’t saddled with crushing debt for a lifetime. And bringing jobs back to America so people can support their families.
If Adam Smith were here today, I think he would chastise the 1 percent for their greed and insensitivity to the “poor and miserable.” If Jonathan Swift were here, he might say we’re back to eating babies again.
Mark Kelley lives in Orono. He is the author of the recent novel “Rain of Ruin” and serves as director of journalism at the New England School of Communications.