The other day, the fine people over at @ReaganBattalion posted an old video of the late, great American economist Milton Friedman talking to Phil Donahue about “greed” as an element of capitalism.
“When you see the greed and the concentration or power,” Donahue laments, “did you ever have a moment of doubt about capitalism, and whether greed is a good idea to run on?”
Friedman effectively strips away the notion that greed was limited to capitalism, and then — as he so often did — presents a persuasive argument (as Donahue sports a Tucker Carlson-like “confused” face) that self-interest, and not government intervention, has led to society’s most important innovations and uprisings out of poverty.
“But it seems to reward not virtue as much as ability to manipulate the system,” Donahue says.
Friedman challenges the premise of political virtue:
“And what does reward virtue? You think the communist commissar rewards virtue? You think a Hitler rewards virtue? You think — excuse me, if you will pardon me — do you think American presidents reward virtue? Do they choose their appointees on the basis of the virtue of the people appointed or on the basis of their political clout? Is it really true that political self-interest is nobler somehow than economic self-interest? You know I think you are taking a lot of things for granted. Just tell me where in the world you find these angels who are going to organize society for us?”
Friedman was right, of course, about the hazards in relying on politicians for societal virtue. But in his answer, he indirectly presented one specific virtue that could have more resonating power — even politically — than most would probably imagine: gratitude.
“I think you are taking a lot of things for granted.”
Sure enough, most people don’t recognize the fruits of what they have until they no longer have it. This is what Jonah Goldberg writes about in Suicide of the West, in which gratitude is a central theme.
“For the West to survive, we must renew our sense of gratitude for what our civilization has given us and rediscover the ideals that led us out of the bloody muck of the past – or back to the muck we will go,” Goldberg argues.
Yet, on its face, gratitude would seem like a pretty tough sell in today’s society, where high-ranking politicians from both major parties are continually running on elements of fear, anger, and grievance. But perhaps we’re not giving Americans enough credit. Perhaps most people feel less victimized than they do unappreciated.
And who can blame them? Our country is closing in on $22 trillion in national debt; and we’re returning to trillion-dollar deficits under a Republican president (whose party held both branches of Congress for the past two years). Meanwhile Democratic presidential candidates looking to unseat Trump in 2020 are running on eliminating the private health insurance industry (which will place a far deeper burden on U.S. taxpayers). And after a government shutdown that was driven almost entirely by ego, rather than by serious policy negotiations or cost considerations, both parties are reportedly working — again — on raising the debt ceiling.
And not so much as a “thank you” to the American public, let alone a serious effort to actually respect the contributions of taxpayers.
Back in 2014, in the midst of members of the Obama administration publicly patting one another (not taxpayers) on the back for bailing out the automobile industry, I proposed the idea of a “Thank you” campaign that I hoped (though didn’t expect) political candidates would consider. It would be a different kind of campaign in which unapologetic gratitude and respect would be expressed for America’s producers. There’d be no class or demographic warfare. No autocratic delusions of grandeur. Instead it would embrace the workforce as a whole, and tout the direly important role those folks play in our country without being insulting or divisive to those outside of the workforce.
I even wrote the end of a hypothetical speech for vying public servants to borrow from (slightly updated):
“Lastly, I want to take a moment to thank the working citizens of this country from the bottom of my heart. When poor, disadvantaged Americans receive government aid, it’s not politicians or even the government that’s helping them. It’s you. You’re helping them.
You’re the ones who are getting up early every morning, commuting to your jobs, taking risks, working hard, and creating wealth not just for yourselves and your families, but also for this country to help its citizens who need help. The working citizens of this country, whether they’re steel workers or CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, are the ones paying for the highways we all drive on, our social programs, the military that bravely defends our nation, and the relief efforts for those who’ve lost everything in natural disasters. You are the driving force behind everything good that government has to offer.
Because of that, this country is indebted to you. And if you put me in office to represent you, I will promise you that I will never forget that. I will value your vitally important contribution to our nation. I will never trivialize it. I will not vilify you for not contributing enough, because you do contribute enough. Let me repeat that: You do contribute enough.
And because of that respect I have for you, I will diligently go after the bad things in government. It will be my mission to eliminate waste wherever I see it. It will be my mission to remove government from the areas of your lives in which government has no business. I will work to reform the necessary areas of government that don’t currently work right. I will work to restore fiscal sanity to this great nation. And I’ll do that as your employee, not as your employer.
You deserve people in the U.S. government who respect you for what you do, and don’t use the fruits of your hard work to stoke resentment in others and divide Americans along economic or ethnic lines as part of a cheap, disgraceful political strategy. You deserve people in the U.S. government that don’t leave your children with a $22 trillion national debt, and lay the blame for that debt on you, the American taxpayer, for not giving enough of your hard-earned money to the government. You didn’t cause this problem. Washington caused this problem.
You’re not a liability to the poor and disadvantaged in this country. That’s an outright lie. You are an asset – a tremendous asset. I will never forget that my role as a leader will mean nothing without the hard-working men and women of this country who pay their taxes and deserve not only my respect, but the respect of the entire country.
Again, I thank you.”
Maybe I’m naïve for thinking that this type of message would resonate, but our current political climate is so far removed from a sense of respect and gratitude that the idea’s time may have finally come.
This isn’t an example of the political virtue that Friedman chided, but rather individual virtue, which is appropriately upstream from politics. The hope is that it would trickle down to our politics and our aspiring leaders.
Gratitude is infectious and goes well beyond our politics and economy. And candidates who are able to understand that, and believe in it, just might find themselves with a large and diverse constituency of supporters.