‘We’re just a million little gods causing rainstorms, turning every good thing to rust.’
Arcade Fire’s words from Wake Up perfectly sums up the tone these days in the developed world when it comes to many social issues. Much of the rancor stems from an empowerment of the people that often fails to appreciate the principles that forced monarchs and governments to restrain theirs.
Freedom, equality, and responsibility are hallmarks enshrined in modern democracies. When it comes power, though, too many people exploit the freedom to exercise it without regard to equality or responsibility. The question to ask yourself if you are wondering which side of the fence you sit on is whether you consider a license to drive or possess guns a right or a responsibility.
The other problem I feel is that it doesn’t dawn on us how much power each of us now possesses and how much potential that has to impact the lives of others. The power of a smartphone alone is in many ways greater than what world leaders had immediate access to 40-50 years ago.
We are certainly more demanding of that understanding with our leaders. Beginning with the Magna Carta, a historic 1215 document by which English King Henry I accepted being subject to the authority of law, governments have understood the importance of the constraint and responsible use of their power towards the progress and prosperity of their people. The question is whether we do that enough when it comes to our own power as individuals.
Part of the problem may be whether we believe enough in a mutual prosperity. The Economist website last week posted a terrific interactive graphic of the history of American wealth inequality over the past 100 years, illustrating how income distribution has shifted in favor of the most wealthiest people over the past 35 years. Of course, this situation raises many questions about the possession and abuse of power by the wealthy towards their own ends, especially considering the events leading up to and after the 2008/2009 global recession.
However, John Oliver comically may have hit a significant nail on the head on his Last Week Tonight show back in mid July when he addressed the wealth gap. Just before the five minute mark (and just after a slightly graphic Eyes Wide Shut reference, heads up) of the youtube clip below, Oliver started talking about how the optimism of the American Dream can make people susceptible to the idea everyone will someday be wealthy, highlighted by a clip of Florida Senator Marco Rubio declaring that the US is a nation of have and soon to haves. The comedian then proceeds to describe how this vulnerability has allowed measures favoring the wealthy – tax cuts for higher income, threats to abolish the estate tax, etc – get support because enough people believe that someday, they will get rich enough for those measures to apply to them.
Such self interest not only makes you vulnerable to exploitation by the powerful, but also susceptible to the corruption of your own power. There is no questioning that everyone is free to pursue, receive, and enjoy the fruits of success. A key question that divides the self interested from those who seek mutual prosperity may be whether you work for success simply because you want it or if you accept that success depends more on whether enough people agree you deserve it.
Adopting the latter point of view goes a long way to understanding the significance of our role in the lives of others in their success as much as ours. We need then to spend more time and effort supporting each other’s goals rather than causing conflict. Each of us committing ourselves to our own Magna Carta can be a step in the positive direction.