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Dr. Charles G. Cogan

Dr. Charles G. Cogan

Posted: November 15, 2009 07:13 PM

The Pursuit of Happiness and the Common Good

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America is the land of "rugged individualism." "No taxation without representation" is often mutated into "no taxation" - witness California. Government intrusion is derided as "socialism" - a tradition that has its roots in the heavy Elizbethan hand over colonial America. "Why should we help the losers?" was a refrain heard at "tea parties" and town hall meetings as health care was debated in at times highly uncivil circumstances this past summer.
Individualism, unlike in the United States, has a rather pejorative connotation in France. As the late eminent historian François Furet described it, the idea that the happiness of the individual should become the goal of society and that the social realm should be limited to the sum of all these individual happinesses constitutes a "disguising of egoisms" - which leads to a twofold deterioration: political by a sort of anarchy and moral by hedonism. The concept of society as a market where the individual lives for himself and his own happiness and for that of those close to him, brings an "inevitable civic deficit, which contains the moral detour that it introduces: the absence of the common good."
When Thomas Jefferson coined the phrase "pursuit of happiness" and put it as an imperative in the Declaration of Independence, could he have foreseen the huge bonuses (and now stock options in a rising market) given to investment bankers in New York, while in the hinterlands millions of unemployed and underemployed are groaning in poverty or nearing it? Has rugged individualism and neglect of our poorer citizens become the norm of American behavior? Have we returned in time to the "mauve decade" of the 19th Century when the so-called "robber barons" built lavishly ostentations mansions in Newport, Rhode Island, and facetiously called them "cottages"?
How to react to this glaring disparity in incomes that has increased exponentially during the last three decades? This development was largely ignored or put aside by many Americans who thought that they too might realize the American dream and reap riches. It did not happen in most cases. Now the issue has exploded before the public as a result of the crisis in the financial markets that brought on the Great Recession.
How to mitigate the rampant greed that has infected Wall Street and a part of the American business community? We cannot replace the market economy, which has been a fact of life in the West for centuries. We cannot turn to revolutionary Marxism, which has proven to be a demonstrable failure.
Perhaps the people should mobilize in favor of the Scandinavian example - democracy with a social face, so to speak. Swedish taxes are onerous - and sometimes wealthy Swedes leave that country to escape them - but perhaps that is the way it should be in the United States. If this leads to fewer risk-takers in our banking system, this could be a small price to pay for the disaster that has hit the world and that began with an economic downturn in the United States in December 2007. One step forward will be allowing the Bush tax cuts - which largely but not exclusively benefited the rich - to expire in 2010.
How else to cope with this glaring shortcoming of the capitalist system while preserving the system itself?

Charles Cogan