Tuesday, 25 August 2015

The powerless need a champion. The right champion.

Today in Britain we live with a government which has held wages down for the powerless while presiding over a huge explosion in “earnings” for the most powerful (the quotation marks around “earnings” are there because I really don’t believe any individual, however mighty, truly “earns” twenty or forty times what, say, a teacher earns – not if by “earn” we mean receiving a merited reward for a contribution).

The powerful are powerful precisely because they have the means to buy themselves power. They are the great contributors to political parties, particularly the Conservatives. The nakedness of the deal is clear from such steps as the reduction of the top rate of tax, in the last government, from 50% to 45%.

Economically, it made no sense: the government’s stated policy was to reduce government deficits and therefore debt, and a reduction in tax ran entirely counter to that objective; the number of individuals involved was far too small to justfiy the move even as a means to garner votes; so the only conclusion was that it was a measure to satisfy the people who donated the most to the predominant party in government at the time, now the sole party in government, the Tories.

What’s true in Britain is threatening in the United States too, where a crowded field of contenders for the Republican presidential nomination is made up of candidates committed to backing the wishes of the sadly downtrodden rich, against the pampered poor.

So it’s wonderful to read this denunciation of the kind of government such people favour. Though aimed at that abuse in the US, it applies equally well to the UK.

It is to be regretted that the rich and powerful too often bend the acts of government to their selfish purposes. Distinctions in society will always exist under every just government. Equality of talents, of education, or of wealth cannot be produced by human institutions… [but] every man is equally entitled to protection by law; but when the laws undertake to … make the rich richer and the potent more powerful, the humble members of society – the farmers, mechanics, and laborers – who have neither the time nor the means of securing like favors to themselves, have a right to complain of the injustice of their government. There are no necessary evils in government. Its evils exist only in its abuses. If it would confine itself to equal protection, and, as Heaven does its rains, shower its favors alike on the high and the low, the rich and the poor, it would be an unqualified blessing.

Doesn’t that have a certain ring to it? “The rich and powerful too often bend the acts of government to their selfish purposes.” Apart from those who share, and indeed champion, those selfish purposes, who would dissent from that sentiment?

So it’s both refreshing and encouraging to hear a voice raised in such clear tones against that kind of abuse.

Sadly, we won’t ever actually hear that voice. The words were spoken by the seventh president of the United States, Andrew Jackson, in the 1830s. That of course only makes it all the more remarkable that they preserve all their freshness and, above all, their relevance today.

More sadly still, even if it were possible to get Jackson back, it’s far from clear it would be desirable. Jackson spoke up for the people, but he defined the people to suit his own bigotry: male, certainly, but above all white.

So when South Carolina announced it would nullify any federal laws it regarded as unconstitutional, Jackson was having none of it: he mobilised the army to bring the State to heel. But when South Carolina decided that it would block the distribution of anti-slavery literature, even though it was being carried by the US post office, a federal and not a state institution, he didn’t lift a finger – though the measure clearly conflicted with the First Amendment of the Constitution guaranteeing freedom of speech.

He was quite picky about the issues over which he would uphold the Constitution.

The Trail of Tears
As pictured by J.J. Peabody
His view on Native Americans was nothing short of tragic. They had no role, in his view, in lands occupied by Whites. They had to go. That led to an act of barbarous ethnic cleansing, as the tribes were driven across the Mississippi, in what came to be known as the trail of tears. The Cherokees, the last to go, lost between 2000 and 6000 along the way, of the 16000 who were expelled.

No, Jackson was not particularly nice.

From which I think we can draw a double lesson. Firstly, we still need a champion of the little man against the arrogant, as much today as nearly two centuries ago, in Jackson’s time. And secondly, we need to be careful who we pick to be that champion – they’re not all quite as savoury as we might wish.

No comments: