Jefferson Was All Wet

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“We hold these truths to be self-evident…” Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1776.

Jefferson had few doubts that he was doing the right thing. His Declaration of Independence set off America’s revolt against the Crown and Parliament.

But history has a way of taking off in her own direction. As Americans were busy celebrating our independence from Britain, we were not entirely sure why they should make so much of it. It seems to us that life turned out tolerably good here in London — probably no worse than in New York or Los Angeles. As near as we can tell, the food, drink, lodgings, and amusements are about the same. And if the Yank is freer, nobler or more enlightened, we have seen no evidence for it.

Our speculations extend themselves. If there had been no Revolution, there might also have been no War Between the States…partly because there would have been no states, certainly none which thought they could decide for themselves whether to remain part of the empire or not, and partly because the British banned slavery throughout the empire years earlier. Nor might there have been a World War I. The Germans might never have challenged the English empire if they knew they had to face America as well as Britain.

By 1914, England was in decline, but America was already the world’s largest economy and still growing fast. Likewise, there might not have been a World War II either. No first world war, no war debt, no reparations, no hyperinflation, no opening for the fascists, no Reichstag fire, no putsch, no Fhrer, no concentration camps, no Blitz, and no war with the Soviet Union on the Eastern Front. But had there been no WWI, there probably wouldn’t have been a Soviet Union anyway. Russia might have modernized and industrialized along European lines. So, no WWI, no Soviet Union, no WWII, no Cold War, no Long March, no Korea, no Vietnam, and who knows what else?

Would we have been better off? We don’t know for sure. But we could hardly have been worse off for missing any of them. As for the main truth that Jefferson thought self-evident, that “all men are created equal,” we are even less certain. What made him think it was self-evident, we don’t know. All the evidence we’ve seen tells us just the opposite — men are not born equal. One is rich; one is poor. One is fat; one is skinny. One has Viking blue eyes and pale skin; the other is a Blackamoor with eyes like burning coals and skin the color of soot. Maybe twins are born equal, but the rest of us are as variable as snowflakes. No two are alike. No two are equal.

When Americans celebrated the birth of their nation the other day, it bothered no one that the founders’ most important insights were palpably untrue. People are born different. It is only before the law that they are equal, and then, only if they don’t have enough money for a good lawyer.

The English legal philosopher Jeremy Bentham was probably thinking on those lines when he scoffed at the theorists of the French and American Revolutions. “Natural Rights,” he growled, “is simple nonsense: natural and imprescriptible rights, rhetorical nonsense — nonsense upon stilts.”

People occasionally appreciate the truth in the same way they appreciate a good joke. It breaks the monotony. But it is to falsehood that they look to organize their lives. Myths stick to them like burrs to a sweater. Warren Buffett, for example, is giving away his fortune because he doesn’t want to corrupt his own children with too much wealth. “I have given them enough so they can do anything,” he says, “but not enough so they can do nothing.” The Sage of the Plains also strongly supports death duties, because he believes it is better for babes to start out life like worker bees — each one an exact duplicate of the other.

But they don’t even start out equal. Not in America. Not anywhere. Warren Buffett was born into the most privileged ranks of American society — the son of a U.S. congressman. Not everyone is so lucky. Of course, not every scion of a political family makes good. And few make as good as Buffett. But the man from Omaha can’t exactly claim that he started life on an equal footing with the average man, most of whom never get close enough to a congressman to shoot him, let alone have dinner with him every night.

Some people are luckier than others, though we never know for sure which is which. And the whole race of Americans seems to be favored. A baby born to a high-caste Goldman vice president in Connecticut clearly has an edge over one born to a low-caste street sweeper in Kerala. One baby born to a middle-class teacher in Silver City is almost surely in better position than another born to a teacher in Sadr City. As for the child of a trashy drug addict in St. Paul, is he really starting off on a better foot than one born to a decent trash picker in So Paulo?

As things now stand, through no virtue or effort on his part, the average American baby can expect to earn 10 times as much per hour as the baby born in other places. It’s not equal, but it’s not bad. Nor is it necessarily permanent. Foreigners still use the U.S. dollar as the world’s reserve currency. And you can still usually sell a house for more than you paid for it. When those conditions end, the levelers should be happy; the advantage American babies have enjoyed for nearly a century will begin to disappear.

Bill Bonner [send him mail] is the author, with Addison Wiggin, of Financial Reckoning Day: Surviving the Soft Depression of The 21st Century and Empire of Debt: The Rise Of An Epic Financial Crisis.

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