I’m getting bogged down grading papers again so I’m hitting you with my first “Best of Lunacy” post to fill the void. (Heck, if the networks can already be putting shows into reruns until after the holidays, why can’t bloggers?!) I published the piece below during the San Diego grocery workers strike back in 2003. The basic theme is pretty much apropo to much of the “who loses what” debate surrounding healtcare today.
The Road to Serfdom, American Style
I’ve lost count of the number of people around me condemning the striking grocery store workers. “What are they complaining about?” “They at least got health care – why should they mind chipping in a few bucks a month for it?” “They make $35,000 a year – that’s too much already!” And on it goes.
Let’s leave aside for the moment bemoaning paying grocery store employees $17 per hour after several decades of employment in a society where 18 year olds who can bounce a ball can make millions. Or CEOs who make $3000 or more per hour. What I find most disturbing of all this worker-bashing going on by other workers, blue and white collar, is what it says about the mindset of average American households. I see it as another sign of the creeping peasantization of the American mind.
I lived for a year in Russia a while back, lecturing on politics as a Fulbright scholar. While there, my students told me a classic Russian folk tale that has always stuck with me.
There are these two Russian serfs – Igor and Ivan. One day Ivan goes out into the forest and finds a wood fairy. The wood fairy tells Ivan she will grant him any one wish. Ivan thinks for a moment. “With my own goat, I can have milk for my family,” he thinks. So he wishes for a goat and–poof – a goat appears. Happy, Ivan goes back to the village where Igor, seeing Ivan and his new goat, becomes enraged. “Now Ivan has a goat he will sell me the milk and take all my money,” Igor thinks. “Where did you get the goat?” he yells at Ivan. Ivan explains to Igor about the fairy and the goat and Igor storms off into the forest to find the fairy. When he does, the fairy tells Igor that she will grant him any one wish. Without blinking an eye, Igor says, “Kill Ivan’s goat!”
Therein lies the essence of life as a peasant. To be a peasant is to live without any real hope of ever doing better. Daddy was a dirt-poor peasant. So was granddaddy – and great granddaddy and great-great granddaddy, and so will the kids and the grandkids. There is no hope of social mobility, period – what you’ve got is all you’re going to get. In this mindset, if anyone gets more it had to come at someone else’s expense. If your neighbor does well, you’re doing less well – life is a zero-sum game.
I grew up in the company of used-to-be peasants a generation or so removed–all of my grandparents were Sicilian immigrants. I remember a basic attitude amongst the older members of this transplanted peasant society. If any member of the family was doing well—say, got a new car—the old timers would publicly wish them the best but privately pray the car would break down.
The German’s call it Schadenfreude — taking delight in the misfortune of others. But Schadenfreude begins with others having better fortune than you in the first place and a feeling of unfairness. “Why them when I can’t have it?” The less likely one thinks it is that fortune will smile on them, the more delight one feels in seeing fortune frown on others.
That’s why the anti-grocery worker sentiment I keep hearing – which basically comes down to “why do they get it when I can’t”—is so disturbing to me. I see it as another sign that, for many people, the dream that life will get better has simply faded away. Health-care, pensions and expanding wages–the stuff unions members fought (and, in many cases, died) for–are available today to a fraction of the American households that used to look upon such benefits as a standard part of working life.
That was, standard back in the days when unions were strong and even respected and cutthroat business competition wasn’t the be all and end all of human existence. After a solid generation of stagnant household incomes for many Americans, those who have lost that past security increasingly seem to look with envy upon those who still cling to a little bit of past prosperity. We wish, in other words, that their goat would die.
Fifty years ago, Friedrich von Hayek accurately wrote of how the rising socialist states of the Nazis and Communists would, through the abject mediocrity these systems propagated, take us all back down the road to serfdom. How ironic, therefore, that, a generation into the take no prisoners free market laissez faire capitalism that dominates today’s business and political culture, so many members of the middle class are showing signs of a growing serfdom in their own outlook towards the future, and towards their fellow citizens.