This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Wednesday, July 31, 2002

July 31, 2002 - The Lessons of History

Some years ago (1975, I believe) Will and Ariel Durant finished their astonishing Story of Civilization: one hundred centuries of human history in eleven massive volumes.

I'll be blunt. I own it. But I haven't read it. At least, not yet.

I have read, however, their much briefer "Lessons of History," in which they try to boil their long lifetimes of research down to a few, pointed essays. I recommend it. You'll find it at our library.

Many people have expertise. Few have wisdom. The Durants were wise.

One of their lessons seems very timely. On occasion, inequities -- meaning, in particular, disparities in wealth -- arise within a society. The Durants wrote, "Despotism may for a time retard the concentration; democracy, allowing the most liberty, accelerates it."

The original disparity often results from a difference in ability -- some people, for a variety of reasons, make more money than others. While most Americans believe in "equal opportunity" -- few would argue that we all have equal abilities.

The problem is that this same wealth tends to pass, through inheritance, to the children of the people who earned it. Who can blame the wealthy? The desire to secure the future of one's young is universal. But the children may or may not have comparable ability.

Within a single generation, suddenly a society no longer has "equal opportunity." Some children begin with a significant jump on their peers, an advantage they did nothing to earn.

In the space of a few generations, money concentrates itself in fewer and fewer hands. Recent high profile business scandals provide eloquent testimony to the dangers of this concentration.

The Durants noted that history is most consistent about what happens next. At some point, this inequity becomes both obvious and intolerable to the general populace. At that point, governments have a choice.

On the one hand, they can redistribute the wealth, usually through some sort of taxation, often a combination of "progressive" taxation (the more you have, the more you pay) or inheritance taxes (in which you're capped as to how much you can leave to the next generation). According to the Durants, this strategy, painful though it may be, has saved more than one society.

Saved them from what? The second choice: violent revolution. Think "French Revolution." Think "guillotine." Think ahead.

Now think about recent efforts, spearheaded by the Bush administration, to repeal in perpetuity the "death tax." At present, a very rich parent may leave a limit of $500,000 to his children without penalty. Beyond that, the taxes are steep -- as high as fifty percent. So, after the first $500,000, if you're leaving $40 million to your kids, they only get $20 million. After that, you just have to hope they can eke by somehow.

I'm not a socialist, although the Durants were. I'm more inclined to agree with Winston Churchill: "Capitalism says that everyone is created equal. Socialism wants to keep them that way."

On the other hand, just slapping a label on someone doesn't disprove their research. Awash in the current news of corporate misbehavior, it might behoove us all to take a page from the lessons of history.

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